Education under Attack in Afghanistan

Global leaders and humanitarian agencies must come together to protect schools, universities, students, and educators, as the Taliban takeover threatens access to safe learning in Afghanistan.
El Pais, September 14, 2021

Weeks before the Taliban seized the Afghan city of Ghazni in August, local media reported that fighters burned down a girls’ school in the town. Sadly, this was not an isolated incident. The bombing or burning of schools, and targeted killings of students and educators, was a frequent tactic used by the Taliban as it fought for territorial control of the country.

Over the last five years, schools, universities, teachers, and students have experienced weekly assaults, perpetrated by non-state armed groups such as the Taliban, Afghan armed forces, and international forces. In 2021 alone, there were over 75 reported attacks on education. Of these, around 45 involved explosive weapons, such as airstrikes, shelling, and improvised explosive devices.

Yet, in spite of these frequent and often deliberate attacks, the former Afghan government and its partners managed to increase the number of school buildings, and students enrolled in them, exponentially. This hard-earned access to education must continue to be prioritized in Afghanistan, and schools and universities, as well as their students and educators, should be protected from attack.

The Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA) identified over 200 attacks on education involving explosive weapons in Afghanistan between 2018 and mid-2021, injuring or killing hundreds of students and educators and damaging or destroying dozens of schools and universities. Explosive weapons with wide-area effects are particularly dangerous because they produce a large blast, can spread fragments over a wide radius, and many are so inaccurate that they can indiscriminately harm civilians. And such attacks increased: over the past 3.5 years attacks with explosive weapons grew as a proportion of all attacks on education, when compared to other attacks such as arson, looting, raids, threats, and armed assault.

Non-state armed groups used explosive weapons to target girls’ education in Afghanistan at least twice a year over the past 3.5 years, according to GCPEA’s new report The Impact of Explosive Weapons on Education: A Case Study of Afghanistan. These attacks reportedly killed or injured at least 160 female students and education personnel and damaged or destroyed at least five girls’ schools.

Several of these attacks grabbed international headlines. On May 8, 2021, an unidentified armed group detonated a carful of explosives and two other bombs outside Sayed Shuhada High School, a girls’ school near Kabul, killing at least 85 civilians and wounding over 240. And months earlier, in November 2020, gunmen stormed Kabul University, where they detonated explosives, engaged in a gunfight, and held dozens of students and staff hostage in classrooms, injuring or killing over 40 people.

Attacks on education have wider impacts than casualties and destruction. Surrounding schools and universities may close temporarily, and students may miss weeks or months of class while fear and trauma interfere with learning when they return.

The former Afghan government made progress in protecting schools and universities from attack, in part by signing the Safe Schools Declaration in 2015 and taking steps to implement its commitments. For example, Afghan armed forces used fewer schools for military purposes since signing the Declaration. Also, together with education partners, authorities developed a comprehensive school safety framework used to address hazards at, or on the way to or from, school.

Now, with the Taliban in control, such gains are at risk, and women and girls stand to lose the most.

In areas of the country already under Taliban control before 2021, girls’ access to education was limited, and teachers, students, and schools confronted daily threats. Violence towards girls’ education is expected to rise in the coming months, endangering those brave enough to still attend class.

In recent weeks, women and girls in Afghanistan have shown that they are not prepared to surrender their right to education and have held demonstrations in major cities. The international community must come out in support of education in Afghanistan and ensure the safety of students and teachers.

Donors and humanitarian agencies should support measures to ensure the continuity and safety of education, including for girls and women at all levels, and make coordinated efforts to deliver education assistance under the current government.

Furthermore, armed forces and groups operating in Afghanistan should avoid attacking education, and government and international bodies with influence over these armed parties should pressure them to safeguard schools, educators, and students of all genders.

The current government should continue past work to implement the Safe Schools Declaration so that the civilian character of schools and universities is maintained and students and educators are protected.

Following on the second International Day to Protect Education from Attack last week, GCPEA calls for urgent action globally. In 2020 alone, GCPEA collected over 2,400 reported attacks on education or military use of educational facilities worldwide – with more than 2,700 students, teachers, and academics injured, killed, or harmed in such attacks. 

Spain can play an important role in putting into action the above recommendations and ensuring safe education in Afghanistan and beyond. Earlier this year, Spain, with support from GCPEA, held a virtual online training on implementing the Safe Schools Declaration, which brought together over 90 representatives from ministries of defence, education, and foreign affairs from 20 countries. The training stemmed from a commitment by the Spanish Government at the Third International Conference on Safe Schools, held in Palma de Mallorca in May 2019. And Spain will also co-host the fourth International Conference on Safe Schools in Abuja, Nigeria, this October.

Now is a crucial moment to preserve gains and ensure that all teachers and students, and particularly girls and women, are spared from the harm, death, and destruction of attacks and are able to continue their education.

Jerome Marston and Marika Tsolakis are senior researchers at the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack.