Learning crisis and girls’ education in Afghanistan

By M Niaz Asadullah, Professor of Development Economics at the University of Malaya, Malaysia

A recent GEM Report blog based on WIDE data highlighted  Afghanistan as one of “the bottom ten countries for girls’ education” in three dimensions: (i) mean years of education of poorest females, (ii) ages 20-24, primary schooling and (iii) lower-secondary schooling. This is despite the fact that it is almost two decades since the end of the Taliban era. This blog looks at new research on the country’s progress in girls’ schooling since that time, both in terms of enrolment gains as well as how much girls learn in school. It voices the fear that the onset of Covid-19 might be another crisis for girls’ education in Afghanistan just when it might have been about to make a turn for the better.

The slow and painful improvement of girls’ education in Afghanistan since the Taliban era

Image: Arete / Ivan Armando Flores / UNESCO

Although nearly two decades have passed since the Taliban era, Afghanistan remains one of the world’s most challenging locations for women. Female education suffered badly during the 5-year Taliban rule (1996-2001). A nationwide ban was put in place in 1997 on girls’ public education and women’s work in public places.  At the end of the repressive regime in November 2001, the influence of patriarchy remains strong. Most girls do not continue to a secondary education. Attacks on girls’ schools are still prevalent.

But despite these challenges, there has been progress.  In a recently published research paper entitled “Enrolling Girls without Learning: Evidence from Public Schools in Afghanistan“, I and two colleagues from BRAC studied progress in the post-Taliban era by asking two questions: (1) How has female enrolment responded? (2) What are girls learning in government-run schools?

We saw a sharp increase in the gross enrolment ratio in primary and secondary education in the post-Taliban era. Most expansion occurred in government schools, where the average primary school completion rate increased from 47% in 2009 to 52% in 2013. By the end of the MDGs era in 2015, the ratio of female to male enrolment in secondary school was restored to 56. That said, girl’s school enrolment share drops from 39% in grade 1 to 35% in grade 9. Moreover, enrolment falls sharply fall at the end of the primary schooling cycle (grade 6).

One reason for low enrolment rates is the poor quality in schools. Among the minority of Afghan girls who are fortunate enough to continue in school beyond lower secondary grades, they are not learning much. We find that among girls enrolled in grades 4 to 9, moving from primary to secondary grades leads to little gains in basic numeracy measured in terms of elementary grade equivalent addition and subtraction skills. Similar results follow from the analysis of student performance in early grade reading, particularly in oral reading fluency and oral reading comprehension. The majority of female students in grade 9 are several grades behind when assessed in terms of mastery of foundational numeracy and literacy skills. In other words, the schooling-learning profile is flat.

These findings imply that Afghanistan faces a huge challenge in providing a quality education for girls. Some 3.7 million children, mostly girls, are still currently out of school. Reforms to enroll these girls in school in itself may not succeed given the weak relationship between grade completion and learning.

Covid-19: an additional barrier to girls’ education the country could have done without

Clearly, despite some progress in female enrolment, Afghanistan still has a long way to go. And the risk is that current disruption to school attendance may further worsen the ongoing learning crisis. Twenty years after the Taliban rule, the Covid-19 outbreak has once again put Afghanistan’s under-provided and poorly governed education system under scrutiny. A national education emergency plan should be in place to ensure that all girls return, and schools are ready to function, once the Coronavirus crisis is over. Continuing community-level sensitization will also be vital to mobilize society wide support for girls’ education when this happens. My research however warns about a challenge that will remain throughout and after this crisis has past:  the low level of learning across grades. Without improvements in quality, even if girls who were already in school do go back after the current school closures, further increase in girls’ school enrolment may not follow.


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