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Secret schools are expanding to skirt the Taliban’s ban on girls’ education 

In the same southern province of Kandahar where the Taliban leadership put a de facto ban on teenage girls’ education in March, a grassroot organization mobilizes communities to challenge that ban and find ways to skirt it.

Pen Path, a volunteer organization that works to reopen closed schools and promote girls’ education in rural Afghanistan, has expanded its chain of secret schools in six southern provinces to support teenage girls who are not allowed to attend school.

“Before the Taliban took over, we were running 12 secret schools for girls only in areas where conservative mores opposed girls’ education,” Mattiullah Wesa, president and co-founder of Pen Path said in a phone interview. “Now, we are operating 35 underground schools, where 122 teachers teach 5,000 girls from grade 1 to grade 9,” he said, adding that they need more resources to extend the opportunity to girls in grade 10 to 12.

The organization also runs online schools for children who have access to the internet and technology and uses mobile libraries on motorbikes to deliver books to children in remote areas of Kandahar. 

Pen Path runs on a network of 2,450 volunteers that includes 450 women. Since its inception in 2009, it succeeded in reopening 100 schools, registering 46 schools with the previous government and creating 40 libraries in provinces that have the lowest literacy rates for youth. 

Sharifa, a grade 8 student in one of Pen Path’s schools in Kandahar, says the secret school brought hope back to her life. “I am happy to be able to continue my education in a house. It helps me get out of the depressing state I was in when the Taliban banned schools,” she said in a voice message. 

The schools also provide learning opportunities for adult women like 43-year-old Amena, who accompanies her three daughters to attend an underground school in the southern province of Uruzgan. “I couldn’t even write my own name, but after sitting in this class, I learned how to read and write,” she said in a voice message, adding that learning to read and write was her “biggest dream.”

More than a million girls in Afghanistan have not returned to school since last August, when the Taliban took over the country and shut schools. In September 2021, the Taliban reopened schools for boys and girls in primary schools, but kept them closed for teenage girls. Later, the Taliban promised that secondary schools would reopen for teenage girls in March but backtracked on the promise on the day it was due. 

The Taliban’s ban on secondary education forced 1.2 million girls out of school, according to the United Nations, adding to an estimated 3.5 million children already not in school, 85 percent of whom are reported to be girls. A 2018 report by Human Rights Watch estimates that two-third of girls did not have access to schools long before the Taliban took over. 

From 1996 to 2001, the years the Taliban ruled Afghanistan for the first time, girls were banned from formal education and underground schools were one of the only ways for girls to get a basic education. 

After the Taliban was overthrown in 2001, there were almost no girls and around one million boys in school. But in the past two decades, with international support and huge financial investment in the education sector, the number of girls in school increased to around 3.5 million in 2020, a progress that has been halted since the Taliban’s return to power. 

Wesa believes if people across the country keep demanding the right of education for their daughters, it would pressure the Taliban to reopen the school for teenage girls. 

That is why Wesa and his team of volunteers have travelled to 22 provinces and 180 districts in the past year, meeting with elders and community members to rally support for girls’ education. 

As part of the work, Pen Path is organizing a campaign across the country, where men and women demand girls’ right to education with a single motto: “Open girls schools”

But under the Taliban, it isn’t easy to call for girls’ education. In the past year, Wesa has been arrested three times, but he is determined to continue.