A little over a year ago, Malala Yousafzai was awarded the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize along with another children’s rights activist. Yousafzai was awarded the prize, at age seventeen, making her the youngest awardee ever, for her work promoting and advancing girl’s education—first in the Swat Valley of Pakistan and later internationally.
Right next door to Pakistan, Afghan girls are also fighting against the odds to secure educational opportunities. Aziza Rahimzada is a fourteen year old Afghan activist who has been nominated for this year’s International Children’s Peace Prize. Rahimzada lives in a refugee camp located in a poor area of Kabul made up of internally displaced persons from surrounding provinces. She started classes for other refugee children in her camp and empowered them to voice their opinions. Moreover, she worked with Afghani officials to obtain a water pump for the families living in her camp, leading some to call her the “Afghan Malala.” Aziza follows in the footsteps of other courageous Afghan women and girls who have fought for access to education, including by creating a network of underground schools for girls during the dark days of the Taliban regime, which prohibited girls’ education.
Despite the advancements of education in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban, children, particularly girls, still face many challenges in obtaining an education. In Afghanistan, an estimated 3.3 million children, the majority of which are girls, are not in school. Only 21 percent of girls finish primary school, and there are 71 girls to every 100 boys in primary school. Afghanistan has struggled nationally with education, around 50 percent of schools lack basic tools like buildings, textbooks, and teaching materials. Furthermore, a number of schools are overcrowded with many operating on a shift schedule (some students come in the morning and others come in the evening). The female literacy rate remains low at an estimated 24.2 percent.
Girls’ education has clear benefits, first and foremost for girls themselves, but also for a variety of development indicators including improving the economy, decreasing poverty, and reducing extremism. Aziza’s efforts to improve the lives of both the children and families in her community highlight the rippling effect that investing in girls can have.
Investing in women and girls is critical to prosperity and peace in Afghanistan and, as I have discussed elsewhere, is central to sustaining the goals, which the United States has fought for there since the September 11, 2001 terror attacks. With President Obama’s announcement that the United States will maintain 5,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan—rather than reduce it to the smaller 1,000 embassy-based force—the administration should redouble its efforts to support the work of women and girls like Aziza who themselves are leaders, building sustainable, local solutions. Last spring, I hosted a CFR Roundtable for Tina Tchen, the executive director of the White House Council on Women and Girls (and First Lady Michelle Obama’s chief of staff), who announced the launch of Let Girls Learn, which supports community-based programs to eliminate the barriers to education for girls, and serves as an example of an effective strategy for the United States to pursue.
In addition to supporting girls’ education directly in Afghanistan, the United States can support the Afghan government in improving the security environment, including by training Afghan women for jobs in the Afghan National Police, which could help prevent the kinds of attacks on female students, schools, and teachers the Taliban has carried out. With the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign upon us, candidates should be asked to address their plans for supporting girls’ education globally—particularly in places where girls have been denied equal access to schools such as in Afghanistan—given its importance, not just for gender equality, but also for security and stability.