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NEW YORK CITY/BOGOTA: Conflict, forced displacement, climate-induced disasters and the cumulative effect of the coronavirus pandemic have left hundreds of millions of children and adolescents – especially girls – without access to quality education around the world.
Today, 222 million young people living in regions affected by wars and disasters – in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and South America – do not have access to uninterrupted or quality education.
According to an analysis by Education Cannot Wait, the United Nations global fund for education in emergencies and protracted crises, 78.2 million of these crisis-affected children are out of school and 119.6 million do not achieve minimum proficiency levels in reading and mathematics despite attending school.
Nowhere, perhaps, is the educational emergency more evident than in Afghanistan, where the return to power of the Taliban in August 2021, combined with drought, the regime’s global isolation and near bankruptcy of the country, has deprived millions of children of the right to a decent life. schooling.
Following the US-led coalition’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan in August last year, the resurgent Taliban insisted they had changed their ways and would allow women and girls to continue to study, thus breaking with the strict policy of sexual segregation that the group had implemented when it was in power. from 1996 to 2001.
However, on the morning of March 23 this year, when more than a million girls showed up in schools across Afghanistan, expecting to resume classes for the first time since the Taliban took over , they were turned away.
Speaking at the launch of the fund’s 2021 annual report in New York, ECW Director Yasmine Sherif told Arab News: “When we went to Kabul and spoke with the Minister of Education, there was a clear agreement that children, young people and young girls up to the age of 18 deserve to go to school. So their starting point was, ‘yes, we must develop a plan and a system.’
“It looked like we were heading towards that. And then suddenly there was a decision in March to ban (high school girls from returning to class), which took us all by surprise.
Since its launch in 2017, ECW has worked with governments, donors, UN agencies, civil society groups, the private sector and communities to provide nearly 7 million young people with quality education in some of the world’s toughest humanitarian crises, with girls representing around half of its beneficiaries.
In 2021 alone, the agency reached 3.7 million children and adolescents, and an additional 11.8 million with its COVID-19 interventions. His investments were made possible by contributions of $1.1 billion to the ECW Trust Fund.
In August, ECW released its annual results report for 2021 and its new strategic plan for 2023 to 2026 ahead of its high-level funding conference, which is due to take place in Geneva in February.
The fund sees education as a vital and lasting response to humanitarian crises, from the war in Yemen to the stabilization phase in Colombia. However, it is in countries like Afghanistan, where years of progress in girls’ education are being actively reversed, that action is most needed.
The Taliban’s about-face on secondary education for girls, which reportedly took place after a secret meeting of the group’s leadership in Kandahar, suggests that the ultra-conservative wing still retains control over the regime’s ideological trajectory.
Girls of primary school age in Afghanistan are allowed to attend school up to grade six. Women are also allowed to attend university, although they are subject to strict gender segregation rules and only if they adhere to a strictly enforced dress code.
Taliban leaders have sought to justify their ban on secondary education for Afghan girls by citing religious principles – a view that many Islamic scholars and civil society groups dispute.
Sherif said: ‘From what I’ve seen, talking to them informally, there are those who want to resume education for secondary school girls and there are those who don’t.
“You have those who are educated, who are aware, who feel this sense of humanity that somehow binds every religion, whatever religion. Humanity comes with any religion, be it the Islam or any other world religion.They understand from the bottom of their heart that “of course my daughter should go to school”.
“And then there are those who may not even understand their own religion.”
On the situation in the context of Afghanistan, Sherif added: “It depends on who is interpreting. It is a question of interpretation. Sometimes it has to do with lack of education. It’s related to a lack of tolerance. This can have to do with many different reasons. There is an internal struggle there. It’s not politics, it’s human behavior. It’s an internal struggle.
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“So that’s what it’s come to, and we know that there are really strong, principled people who really want to see girls go back to high school, who almost cry when you talk to them, and then there are those who are less emotional about it and may not feel the same desire.
Although many Afghans were appalled when the Taliban barred secondary school-aged girls from returning to class, those familiar with the group’s Puritan rules and erratic policies during its previous rule were uncertain. not surprised at all.
Rampant ultra-conservatism is evident in new rules that prohibit women without hijabs or male chaperones from traveling long distances, and the dismissal of women from jobs and positions of influence.
Sherif said the Organization of Islamic Cooperation could play an important role in the humanitarian response in Afghanistan that could offer an antidote to the Taliban’s hardline views on girls’ education.
“The role of the OIC is to work across the Islamic world and find commonalities and common interests. And that can play an instrumental role, especially when the de facto authorities define themselves on a religious basis, the Islamic emirate, then the organization would naturally be a useful partner,” she said.
The OIC is the second largest intergovernmental organization after the UN, with 57 member states on four continents providing a collective voice to the Muslim world.
“There is no Muslim country today in the world where secondary school girls do not go to school, except Afghanistan. Secondary school girls go to school in all Muslim countries. They hold leadership positions; they go to universities. Women in the Muslim world play instrumental intellectual and scientific roles.
“And there are over a billion Muslims in the world. It is important that their voices are heard and that their views are shared with the de facto authorities in Afghanistan. It should be fair to listen to the OIC. They have a lot to share,” Sherif added.
In its efforts to isolate the Taliban and force them to change their ways, the international community has blocked the regime from accessing billions of dollars in aid, loans and frozen assets including the United States, the Monetary Fund international and the world desperately need. Bank.
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Sherif said: “It is very important that we do not abandon Afghanistan, which is on the brink of an absolutely terrifying humanitarian catastrophe.
“In fact, they are already in a disaster. When you are so poor that you have to sell your child to feed your family. When drug addiction increased. When they don’t even have money to go to the hospital. They must die or let their children die or sell their children.
She noted that instead of abandoning the Afghan people, multilateral and bilateral donors should target foreign aid in such a way that it bypasses the Taliban regime and delivers aid where it is needed.
“The humanitarian imperative is not to be politically aligned or to have anything to do with national budgets or providing resources to the government. It is about providing humanitarian aid and that is the position of UN civil society.
“The UN is there and acting. It goes directly to the vulnerable population,” Sherif said.
In an impassioned appeal to international donors, she added: “We must hold the flag for the Afghan people, mothers, fathers, children and girls, and the right to the essentials, and they are now on the brink of starvation. . Don’t turn your back on Afghanistan.