Girls’ Education: A Casualty of the Disastrous Withdrawal from Afghanistan?

August 16, 2021

The withdrawal from Afghanistan by Western powers could be a disaster for girls’ education. As the Taliban swept across the country, taking control of Kabul yesterday evening, Afghan women and girls feared they would lose their right to go to school and university. These fears are reflected in three recent surveys by the Asia Foundation over the last year, which show a large gender gap in support for Taliban rule (figure 1).

Figure 1. Support by gender for a peace agreement where the Taliban is given a role in government

Source: Afghanistan Flash Surveys on Perceptions of Peace, COVID19 and the Economy, Asia Foundation, 2021

Even before the government fell to the Taliban, Afghanistan was one of the most unequal countries in the world in terms of male and female participation in education. But this hides huge gains made in the last two decades, gains that are now desperately vulnerable to being eradicated. As a potentially devastating new era in Afghanistan begins, we take a look at what is at risk for girls’ education.

After the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, enrolment in school increased rapidly

When the Taliban last took power in the 1990s, a strict regime was imposed that banned education for girls. Women were not allowed to work and had to be accompanied by a male relative if they left the house. When Taliban rule ended in 2001, there was a sharp and rapid increase in enrolment rates, for both boys and girls. Progress plateaued over the last decade and a large gender gap remains. Nonetheless, with the new Taliban regime’s policy on girls attending school unclear, there are millions of girls who may soon be forced to abandon their education.

Figure 2. Primary attendance rate for girls and boys

Source: Author’s analysis of official data is from UNESCO UIS, and survey data from the 1997, 2000, 2003, and 2010 UNICEF Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys (MICS), 2015 Demographic and Health Survey (DHS), and 2017 Afghanistan Living Conditions Survey. The 2000 MICS survey covers rural Eastern Afghanistan only.

Beyond girls enrolment, the collapse of the last Taliban regime saw a rapid increase in the number of female teachers working in primary schools in Afghanistan (figure 3). In some parts of the country, families will not accept their daughters being taught by male teachers, so a low percentage of female teachers is therefore a major barrier to girls enrolment. Losing women from the teaching workforce could have major and enduring impacts on girls' education.

Figure 3. Percentage of female teachers in primary schools

Source: Authors’ analysis of UNESCO UIS data.

Enrolment rates for rural girls have increased, but large gaps remain

Unsurprisingly, many more girls living in urban areas are enrolled in school than their peers in rural areas. The factors that limit girls’ attendance across the country are amplified in rural areas: safety concerns and gender norms. Schools far from home, especially in difficult mountainous regions, make it challenging for girls to reach their classrooms. The limited number of single-sex schools and low numbers of female teachers in rural areas are additional barriers to enrolment for girls. And the threat to girls in school increased with Taliban advances in recent years, girls enrolment in rural areas was already on the decline.

Figure 4. Primary attendance rate in rural and urban Afghanistan

Source: Author’s analysis of 1997, 2000, 2003, and 2010 UNICEF Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys (MICS), 2015 Demographic and Health Survey (DHS), and 2017 Afghanistan Living Conditions Survey. The 2000 MICS survey covers rural Eastern Afghanistan only.

Afghans support equal educational opportunities for boys and girls

The Asia Foundation surveyed the opinions of Afghans every year between 2004 and 2019. Support for education for women has remained high over the period, registering at 87 percent in 2019. Research by Dana Burde and Jehanzaib Khan suggests that where there are gender gaps in access to education, it is caused by safety concerns rather than a lack of support for education. Parents who have experienced or know of more attacks on education are less likely to send their children to school.

However, support for gender equality in education declines through successively higher levels of education, with 75 percent approving of women having equal opportunity to attend university in their own province and just 36 percent supporting women studying abroad on a scholarship (figure 5)..

Figure 5. Support for gender equality in education, by region

Source: Asia Foundation, 2019

Girls’ education has been a priority for international donor funding and diplomacy in Afghanistan since the fall of the last Taliban regime in 2001. Indeed, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson frequently cites the increase in girls enrolment as a key achievement of British forces and UK aid.

The new Taliban government’s policy on girls’ education and international aid is unclear and when aid efforts can resume humanitarian relief will likely take priority over education. But the very least the international community should do in the short term is to offer refuge to those who have promoted education and opportunities for girls, often backed by international donors, and who may now be at grave risk from the Taliban.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.

Image credit for social media/web: Graham Crouch / World Bank