Afghan authorities say they are investigating a rash of attacks against schoolgirls in the northern province of Kunduz, blaming anti-government forces opposed to girls’ education for suspected gas poisoning. In the past week, more than 80 students in three separate girls’ schools have reported falling ill in their classrooms, suffering from headaches, fever, dizziness, and vomiting.
The Taliban have denied responsibility for the incidents. But government officials and community leaders say they believe the attacks were perpetrated either by the Taliban or insurgent and former mujahideen leader Gulbudeen Hekmatyar, whose followers have worked with the Taliban in the past several years.
“I think they are scared of the power that women could have once they are educated, so they want to keep half the population on its knees.”
This is only the latest attack against Afghan schoolgirls, who were banned from classrooms when the Taliban controlled the country from 1996 to 2001. Nearly 100 female students were hospitalized in 2009 in what appeared to be a similar poisoning in the northeastern province of Kapisa. And in 2008 two men used toy guns to spray acid on the faces of teenage girls on their way to school in Kandahar.
“These are systematic attacks,” says Orzala Ashraf, a human-rights activist in Kabul. “They want to say with the attacks that ‘we have power, we can create fear, and we can create chaos at the provincial level in these places.’”
The high-profile incidents make families fearful of educating their girls, already a difficult prospect in a nation where insecurity, cultural traditions, poverty, and a lack of access to schooling leave female literacy rates hovering around 15 percent. Afghan boys are twice as likely to finish primary school as girls, according to a 2005 United Nations report.
Yet while their families may be scared, the girls themselves say they refuse to stop their schooling. Afghans have been through worse, say community leaders, and won’t be deterred.
“Right now girls are hungry for education—girls, boys, families, everyone wants to be educated in this country,” says Manizha Naderi, whose Women for Afghan Women organization runs a network of women’s shelters and family counseling centers. “They are not going to let one attack keep them from going to school.”
Ashraf agrees, saying the students and teachers in Kunduz she has spoken with are frightened but determined to return to the classroom.
“Many girls continued their education even during the Taliban,” she says. “Those who are conducting these attacks, if their aim is to scare off girls and women in Afghanistan from school, I think history has showed it won’t work.”
Education, say Naderi and Ashraf, is guaranteed under Islam. Politics and power are really the issue for those who would attack girls in their schools.
“I think they are scared of the power that women could have once they are educated, so they want to keep half the population on its knees,” Naderi says. “They don’t know what is going to happen if masses of women and girls are educated; they don’t want to lose control.”
There is no denying, however, that the insurgency is claiming more ground in what used to be one of the country’s more secure regions. Women for Afghan Women is a month away from opening its first women’s shelter in Kunduz, and Naderi says she and her colleagues have watched the region grow more violent in the past year. Still, she says, the group is committed to pushing ahead with its work.
“We get calls from Kunduz all the time asking when are we coming,” Naderi says. “We are here to help women and work for women, and that is what we are going to do. This attack shows us that our work is needed even more now than ever before.”
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon covered presidential politics as a producer at ABC News in Washington. Since 2005, she has been reporting on women entrepreneurs starting small and midsize businesses in post-conflict economies such as Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Rwanda. She is working on a book scheduled for 2010 publication by HarperCollins about a young Afghan entrepreneur whose business supported her family and community during the Taliban years.