Afghan Girls Have a Right to an Education

By Ambassador Callista L. Gingrich

Last weekend in Afghanistan’s northern Sar-i-Pul province, 89 primary school girls and teachers were poisoned and hospitalized following attacks at the Kabod Aab School and the Faiz Abad Girls’ School. The victims experienced shortness of breath, weakness, nausea, and headaches. Many had to be placed on ventilators. 

The identities of those responsible for the attack at the time of this writing remain unknown. However, the attack further heightens Afghan parents’ fears regarding the safety of their daughters attending school. 

Tragically, this is not the first time such an assault has happened in Afghanistan. Similar incidents involving poisonings have occurred in the last decade. In 2012, about 300 schoolgirls became ill in the northern province of Takhar, and nearly 200 schoolgirls got sick after a similar incident in Kabul a year later. In 2016, nearly 600 schoolgirls were assaulted with what was thought to be toxic gas.

These prior attacks occurred under the previous Western-backed government. Now, given the Taliban’s history of oppressing women, parents are concerned that opponents ofeducation for girls will feel increasingly emboldened to carry out school attacks.

“Everyone is scared, and we should be scared because the poisoning of the students is severe,” said Hassan Haidari, the father of a teacher who was poisoned at the Kabod Aab School.

Sadly, concern over the school safety is just one of many harsh realities facing women and girls in Afghanistan. 

Since the Taliban seized power of the country in 2021, the status of women and girls has significantly declined. As the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan reported after the takeover, “In no other country have women and girls so rapidly disappeared from all spheres of public life, nor are they as disadvantaged in every aspect of their lives.”

Under Taliban rule, girls cannot receive an education beyond sixth grade and are prohibited from attending a post-secondary school. In addition to education, the Taliban have limited women’s freedoms. According to the Congressional Research Service, “Increasing Taliban restrictions are severely reducing the ability of women to participate in Afghan public life.” 

Women cannot drive more than 45 miles or fly without a male relative, and beginning in May 2022, the Taliban reportedly began to deny issuing drivers’ licenses to women. Women are barred from public parks in Kabul and are required to be completely covered while in public. The Taliban has prohibited women from participating in athletics and from holding many jobs.

The drastic deterioration of the rights of women and girls under Taliban rule is appalling. The recent assaults at the Kabod Aab School and the Faiz Abad Girls’ School underscore the dangers of daily life for girls in Afghanistan.  

Regarding the latest poison attacks, Mr. Haidari said, “People want to know who did this to ensure it doesn’t happen again…Otherwise, no one will send their daughter to school.”  

The women and girls of Afghanistan deserve better. 

In the aftermath of the poisonings, the European Union issued a statement that denounced the attacks as “a heinous crime that needs to be followed up by the de facto authorities, as per their obligations under international law to protect the population.” 

Girls in Afghanistan have a right to an education in a safe environment. The Biden administration and members of Congress must call for accountability and strongly condemn the violent poisoning of these innocent Afghan students and teachers.