Peace for Whom?

The European Union must renew its commitment to its role of ensuring educational opportunities for girls amid US-Afghanistan peace negotiations. It must not remain on the sidelines.

In 2001, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan stated that “There cannot be true peace and recovery in Afghanistan without a restoration of the rights of women.” Annan was neither the first nor the last to cite the liberation of women as a rationale for the U.S-led invasion of Afghanistan. Eighteen years later, the European Union (EU) must keep this rationale in mind amid the ongoing peace negotiations. The EU has an obligation to ensure that the progress that has been made in regard to women’s rights and opportunities in the country is upheld. Most importantly, the EU now has an opportunity to advocate for further improvements in this sphere.

One area that has seen improvements is education – In the last eighteen years women and girls have been given the right to attend school, a right they were denied during the five-year rule of the Taliban. However, a recent UNICEF report revealed that 3.7 million children between the ages of seven and seventeen have not been attending school. Girls made up more than half of this number, which means that only one out of every three girls is receiving an education. The current percentage of girls attending school in Afghanistan is at the lowest point in recorded attendance since 2001, which indicates a deteriorating situation that requires immediate attention.

The EU has made their full support of the Afghan government clear with their willingness to help promote trade in the region as well as assisting with the peace process. This, in conjunction with the fact that the EU is the country’s fourth largest donor in development and humanitarian aid signifies great influential power. In this fragile transition process, the EU has an obligation to ensure that the Taliban, who is currently in control of forty districts in Afghanistan, is not successful in obtaining a role in the Afghan government as a part of the peace negotiations. If this comes to pass, the extensive work that has been done to make education more accessible to women and girls will have been in vain, and millions of girls will never have the opportunity to go to school.

Once it is ensured that there will be no backpedaling on progress, the EU must work in collaboration with the Afghan government to further expand educational opportunities for girls throughout the country, particularly in rural areas. One way that the EU can accomplish this is by pushing for the comprehensive implementation of legislation that will make schooling mandatory and free from discrimination for all children. The fact that this is not currently the case violates Afghanistan’s obligations under international law and is contradictory to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The EU must also demand that Afghanistan fully enforces its legislation on child marriage laws and does not allow any child below the age of sixteen to marry. Child marriage effectively excludes young girls from receiving an education as many are forced to drop out of school as a result.

Lastly, the EU must ensure that the Afghan government is held accountable, not only in regard to the distribution of the aid that is received, but also in terms of accurate statistics reporting. It is estimated that only between 2 and 6 percent of donor funding is invested in the education sector, meanwhile the Afghan government is consistently and inaccurately reporting the true number of girls that are currently attending school by only reporting that a child is not attending school three years after they have left. The education sector is undoubtedly the most important sector to invest in, since doing so has been linked to a reduction in poverty, economic growth, and an increase in income. Therefore, accountability must be guaranteed.

Donor funds cannot go to waste, especially since there is still a massive lack of school infrastructure throughout the country. Young girls cannot be expected to attend school when there are little to no permanent buildings for them to learn in, there is an insufficient amount of bathroom facilities for them, and there is a severe shortage of female teachers. With a lack of permanent buildings comes a lack of safety, which is a major factor in families determining whether or not they will send their children to school in the first place. The inadequate amount of proper bathroom facilities and the scarcity of female teachers must be understood in the context of gendered norms in the country, which not only consider it shameful for girls to be unable to wash, but inappropriate for them to receive lessons from a man once they reach a certain age. School infrastructure in Afghanistan needs the support of the EU. Ensuring the accountability of the Afghan government can ensure that problem areas like these are never concealed in an attempt to project an image of consistent upward progress.

If the EU indeed wishes to “adhere to the rule of law and respect for the universal human rights of all Afghans, in particular as regards to women and children” then there is no time to waste. Educational opportunities for all girls in Afghanistan must be guaranteed, and the EU’s current position is optimal for ensuring that.

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