Rehan Muhammad

Following the Taliban’s assumption of power in Afghanistan two years ago, the ban on girls’ education compelled numerous Afghan parents to seek refuge in Pakistan. However, the hope of parents striving for their daughters’ education appears to remain unfulfilled in Pakistan.

Syed Agha, a forty-year-old from Afghanistan’s eastern province of Nangarhar, formerly employed by an aid organization, faced the closure of his workplace when the Taliban took control in August 2021. Subsequently, he and many of his colleagues found themselves jobless. After several months of waiting, Syed Agha recognized that the Taliban’s ban on girls’ education showed no signs of being lifted in the foreseeable future. Consequently, he made the decision to relocate to Pakistan with his family. They first arrived in Peshawar via Torkham and then settled in Board Bazar within the Tajabad area of Peshawar.

Board Bazar, often referred to as “Little Kabul,” predominantly consists of Afghan refugees, with many Afghan-owned businesses and the prevalence of the Dari language spoken in Afghanistan. Despite its proximity to Peshawar, the area also hosts numerous private schools catering to Afghan children. However, Syed Agha encounters a significant obstacle in his children’s education – his inability to afford the fees of these private institutions due to irregular employment.

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The situation becomes even more dire when considering the fifty-four Afghan camps and settlements established explicitly for Afghan refugees. These settlements house approximately one-third of the millions of Afghans living in Pakistan. Regrettably, the educational facilities within these settlements are wholly insufficient to meet their needs.

Qaisar Afridi, spokesperson for the United Nations Organization for Afghan Refugees, reports that the Pakistani government, with UNHCR support, has established 105 schools in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, accommodating around 55,000 Afghan children. Astonishingly, only twelve and a half thousand of these children are girls.

On a related note, Nasir Hussain, an official of the Private Afghan Schools Union of Peshawar, highlights the presence of approximately fifteen such private schools in Peshawar, where an estimated 15,000 Afghan children receive education. Nevertheless, local aid agencies estimate that the number of Afghan girls seeking education exceeds one million.

A comprehensive investigation by TNN reveals numerous impediments obstructing the path to education for Afghan girls in Pakistan. Among these challenges, the most pressing issue is the severe shortage of employment opportunities within Afghan settlements, compelling many refugees to relocate to nearby urban areas. However, even after finding employment in urban centers, affordable educational options remain elusive.

Fatima, a resident of Peshawar’s Haji Camp, completed her secondary school education in 2020. Nevertheless, her life has been confined to the four walls of her home since then. Fatima explains that her father’s livelihood revolves around selling fresh fruit from a cart at the Haji camp base, barely meeting their household’s basic needs. The prospect of affording higher education is an unimaginable burden under these circumstances. The absence of employment opportunities, coupled with the unavailability of official documentation, exacerbates the challenges faced by Afghan girls like Fatima.

Nasir Hussain, an official from the Afghan Private Schools Union of Peshawar, points out that many Afghan refugees in Pakistan encounter obstacles when seeking admission to Pakistani educational institutions due to their lack of Proof of Registration (PoR) cards or other identification documents.

However, Abdul Akram, the Additional Secretary General of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, clarifies that Afghan children’s admission to Pakistani primary schools does not necessitate documentation from them or their parents. This relaxed policy is in place until the board exams stage. However, given the financial constraints faced by Afghan refugees, private schools charging monthly fees of three to four thousand rupees remain financially out of reach for Afghan refugee girls.

Another significant issue centers on societal attitudes. Dr. Muhammad Noor chose the subject of “Social and Psychological Issues for School-going Afghan Girls in Pakistan” for his Master’s degree thesis in Public Health. He notes that Afghan children encounter a lack of empathy in many Pakistani schools, and their parents are hesitant to enroll them due to the harsh attitudes exhibited by the local population toward refugees.

The language of instruction has also emerged as a recent concern. Approximately four years ago, anticipating a prolonged stay of Afghan refugees in Pakistan, the UNHCR decided to implement the Pakistani curriculum in Afghan refugee schools. Amanullah Nusrat, the principal of an Afghan private school on Peshawar’s Nasir Bagh Road, explains that Afghan schools formerly conducted classes in Pashto, Dari, and Persian languages. However, the curriculum has since shifted to Urdu, posing comprehension challenges for Afghan children and leading to a decline in student attendance.

Nausheen Orakzai is a dedicated advocate for women’s rights and education in the Pashtun regions. She emphasizes that the challenges faced in girls’ education within Khyber Pakhtunkhwa extend beyond Afghan girls and also affect Pakistani girls. Orakzai points out that there is a significant deficit of schools for Pakistani girls, resulting in many of them missing out on education due to a lack of awareness about its importance and economic constraints. She emphasizes that these challenges are exacerbated for Afghan girls.

Abdul Akram, the Additional Secretary General of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, clarifies that there is no specific allocation of quotas or budgets in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa schools for Afghan refugees. He highlights that the education system in the province is designed to cater to everyone, providing basic education free of charge.

The attitude of Pakistani authorities, which appears to overlook the educational challenges faced by millions of Afghan girls, has not escaped the attention of the international community. Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai’s father passionately advocates for the education of Afghan girls in Afghanistan through daily tweets. However, Afghan girls in Pakistan have not been the primary focus of his efforts.

TNN reached out to the Malala Fund regarding the education of Afghan girls in Pakistan, but the organization declined to provide information regarding collaborations with the Pakistani government or any other organizations on this matter.

Afghan diplomatic officials in Pakistan have not been highly active in addressing this issue either. Maulvi Abdul Qadir, the Education Attaché of the Afghan Consulate in Peshawar, asserts that the Afghan government continually strives to cooperate with Pakistani authorities and other institutions to support its students. He informs TNN that he is working to reintroduce the Afghan curriculum for Afghan children in Pakistan.

However, recent comments by Afghan Consul General Maulvi Mohibullah during a speech at the beginning of the new academic year in September raise questions about the sincerity of these efforts. Mohibullah expressed the need for both secular and religious education for the country’s development and prosperity but stated that a mixed education system is not suitable for Afghan girls.

Maulvi Mohibullah asserts that the Afghan government is actively working on establishing a separate education system tailored to the needs of Afghan girls. He envisions creating a conducive environment that will soon facilitate their education under this new system.

Deputy Afghan Consul Mufti Noorullah Hotak, speaking at an event for Afghan students at Khyber Medical College, contends that the ban on women’s education imposed by the Islamic Emirate is merely propaganda. According to him, ongoing efforts are underway to reform the educational curriculum in Afghanistan, with changes already implemented up to class 9. He insists that the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan does not support banning women’s education and employment, characterizing this as a temporary decision subjected to various forms of misinformation. As soon as favorable conditions are established, he asserts that all educational institutions will reopen for female students.

Despite these claims, the current reality underscores that it has been two years since the ban on Afghan girls’ education in Afghanistan, with no clarity on what the Afghan government deems as favorable conditions or when they will materialize. The timeline remains uncertain. However, the primary obstacle hindering the education of Afghan refugee girls in Pakistan appears to be a lack of strategic planning and focused efforts.

Ultimately, it falls upon the authorities of Pakistan and Afghanistan to decide whether the education of these innocent Afghan girls takes precedence over the political and economic considerations of both nations, considering the toll it currently exacts on this young generation of Afghan girls.