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Photo Essay: From students to labourers: The reality for Afghan girls living under the school ban 

In August last year, girls across Afghanistan were told to leave their classrooms. To pack up their books and go home.
07 December 2022

Some girls didn’t even make it into the classroom, arriving at school only to find the gates firmly closed, apologetic cleaners and teachers sharing the news that the Taliban had banned girls above the sixth grade from going to school.

Overnight, Afghanistan’s teenage girls went from dreaming of a future where they could be doctors, engineers, or teachers, to fearing a future of complete darkness.

Instead of spending their days reading, writing, and learning, hundreds of thousands of girls now spend their days working on farms or in other people’s homes, weaving carpets, looking after their younger siblings or the family’s livestock, collecting drinking water or cooking bread.

They’ve been transformed from students into child labourers against their will.

Save the Children has travelled across Afghanistan documenting how the ban has impacted girls’ lives. These are some of their stories and their photos. In their hands – where they used to hold pens and books – they hold tools, buckets, and dishes: items that represent how they now spend their days.

“I used to be holding a pen and book and now I’m holding a broom – it’s a symbol of hopelessness.” - Asiya*, 15 
  
Asiya* and her sister found out they had been banned from school on the morning of their exams.

“Last August, we were taking the Pashto language exam. My father was saying the situation wasn’t good and he was worried about us going to school. But my sister started crying…and she didn’t want to fail. So, our parents let us go,” Asiya*, 15, says.

“We went to school but when we opened the school gate, the cleaner told us the school was closed and to go home. It’s such a sad memory. I felt so hopeless.”

Asiya had dreams of becoming a doctor – inspired by her childhood doctor who helped treat her kidney problem – but now spends her days doing housework with her mother.

“This is my message for the world: I used to be holding a pen and book and now I’m holding a broom – it’s a symbol of hopelessness,” she says.

“For anyone who is seeing me and hearing me, please give equal rights to boys and girls for education. Please reopen our schools. We want to go back to school.”
  
Nazaneen’s* hands are cracked and itchy from spending 12 hours a day weaving carpets. But she says it’s the boredom that gets to her the most.

“From my physical to my mental health, everything is ruined. It’s so hard to concentrate on such a boring and repetitive task for hours and hours and it makes me very upset and depressed,” 16-year-old Nazaneen* says.

“It was a black day when the schools were closed. We had exams but my mother said we couldn’t go to school because they were closed. That was the day my heart broke. Whenever I think about that day, I cry because it was the day that my future and hopes disappeared.

“I don’t even think about the hopes I had to become a doctor. All I think about now is my uncertain future. I really have no idea what tomorrow will bring. But for sure, I know my future won’t be as good as it could have been if I was still attending school.”


While Nazaneen’s parents don’t force her to work, she says she wants to support her family. The economic crisis currently gripping the country means her father’s work as a builder has dried up. He now works in a brick factory. But the money isn’t enough to cover costs – especially given the skyrocketing cost of food.

Despite the hardships, Nazaneen’s parents still give her hope. “My father tells me I will still have a future and that I will still be an independent woman and have all the things I wish for,” Nazaneen* says.

Fourteen-year-old Saima* worries about the girls in her community who are no longer at school and are now at risk of early marriage and child labour.

“Most of the time, I bake bread for the community, and this is how I earn money for the family. For one piece of bread, I only earn 4 Afs (USD $0.05). I also tend to our animals. I’m underage but doing hard labour. Many children are now involved in child labour,” Saima* says.

“If I reach 17 or 18 years of age and I’m still not in school, my parents may engage me to someone. School is better than getting married. But if schools don’t open, then parents will be obliged to engage their daughters.”

Saima also worries about the impact of the school ban on girls’ mental health.

“Education is an important part of our life and if we can’t go to school, we lose hope. And without hope, we lose our life,” she says.

Save the Children runs almost 4,000 Community-Based Education classes in Afghanistan for children who cannot access the formal education system and is providing children and teachers with learning and classroom kits. The organisation also works with female secondary school graduates to support them to become teachers and pass the university entrance exam.

Save the Children is calling on the Taliban to immediately allow girls of all ages to return to school. There is no issue – administrative, logistical or otherwise – that can possibly justify the continuation of a policy that denies girls access to their education.

ENDS
 
MEDIA CONTACT: Joshua Mcdonald  on 0478010972 or media.team@savethechildren.org.au.

*Names changed to protect identities.

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