Poverty forcing Afghan girls to skip higher education

Waheeda Bayat, a law student, will not be among those returning to institutions across Afghanistan this month.

The 24-year-old had hoped to resume her studies at Kabul’s prestigious Gawharshad University, but she is unable to do so due to the country’s economic collapse, which has pushed millions of Afghans into poverty.

On a recent beautiful day, she stated as she walked by her old campus, “I’m really thrilled to see my university.”

“However, I wish I could finish my education, spend time with my classmates and teachers, and go to the library to study,” she says.

Although the Taliban’s extreme Islamists are allowing women back into colleges after banning them the last time they governed, Bayat must instead focus on feeding and sheltering her family of nine.

Following the Taliban’s takeover of power in August, most aid to Afghanistan was abruptly halted, plunging the country into chaos.

Up to 97 percent of Afghans could be living below the poverty line by the second half of 2022, according to the UN’s development agency. Kabul parks have become shanty towns as people from rural areas seek aid; malnourished newborns fill hospital wards; and up to 97 percent of Afghans could be living below the poverty line by the second half of 2022, according to the UN’s development agency.

Women have suffered disproportionately as a result of this.

Women have lost jobs at a faster rate than men in recent months, according to data, and several privileges secured over 20 years of Western-backed governments have been restored. Some women were forced out of work owing to Taliban restrictions in the immediate aftermath of their invasion.

Bayat used to pay for her studies with a monthly salary of 12,000 Afghanis ($132) from a local media network.

However, since she and her mother lost their jobs, Bayat has only been able to make 8,000 Afghanis with her sisters, money that must be stretched to sustain the entire family.

“We are concerned that Waheeda will be unable to complete her studies,” Marzia, Waheeda’s mother, told Reuters in their three-bedroom house in the capital’s west. “She is a dedicated young lady. I wish I could come up with some funds to help (her) continue.”

Questions about the impact of the economic crisis on women’s studies and what restrictions, if any, would be imposed on female students as they returned to class were not answered by the Higher Education Ministry.

There are no official statistics on how many Afghans, men and women, have dropped out of college owing to financial constraints. The rate of attrition among women appears to be considerable.

Media spoke with 15 female university students in Kabul, Herat in the west, Nangarhar, and Laghman in the east, eight of whom said they were dropping out owing to financial concerns.

Three more stated they were facing difficulties that forced them to limit class times and consider quitting.

“The humanitarian crisis is a women’s rights crisis,” said Heather Barr, Human Rights Watch’s associate women’s rights director. “The economic crisis has disproportionately impacted women and girls.”

She blamed the abuse of women by the Taliban as well as the international community’s unwillingness to address the economic catastrophe.

Some students’ family, who earlier helped them pay for their education, are no longer able to do so.

“I wanted to serve my people… but now I can’t,” Mahtab, a Herat psychology student who only supplied her first name out of fear for her family’s safety, said.

Her older sister used to pay for her schooling, but she lost her job in the communications department of the former president’s office, she claimed.

On February 24, 2022, Waheeda Bayat, a 24-year-old student, speaks with her classmates outside Gawharshad University in Kabul, Afghanistan.

After the Taliban swept back to power, the sister was identified by the Taliban as having participated in women’s protests, and she opted to depart the country for fear of retaliation.

Retaliation against women’s rights advocates, including the disappearance of dozens in recent months, has alarmed the United Nations and certain nations. The Taliban has stated that they are looking into the disappearances.

Some women who expect to return to classes at public institutions, which will reopen in Kabul on Saturday after starting on February 2 in other parts of the country, are concerned that men and women would be separated, topic options will be limited, and burqas will be required.

Such procedures were already in place in some sections of the country where universities had previously reopened, reflecting the area’s more conservative values.

In others, including comparatively liberal cities like Kabul and Herat, the laws for women in class and on campus remain unclear.

“If the Taliban make me wear a burqa, I’d rather stay at home than attend to university,” Anahita, a 20-year-old Kabul psychology student, remarked.

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