BBC World Service
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Article 26: Right to education

  • Afghanistan has long had one of the poorest education records in the world, with a low rate of school attendance and a high percentage of illiteracy.
  • Between 1996 and 2001, under the Islamic group the Taleban, the educational situation in Afghanistan worsened. The school curriculum was restricted, schools were destroyed and Afghan females were banned from all educational life.
  • After the Taleban fell from power in late 2001, an international effort to reconstruct the educational system ensued. Record numbers of students enrolled in school, including the highest percentage of female students in decades.
  • Despite the progress, authorities in Afghanistan recorded a series of attacks on girls' schools by suspected Taleban sympathisers. Many people in the country say it will take a long time to turn around male attitudes towards women.
  • A large amount of material designed for the 2004 elections has been specifically designed to encourage women to vote, and to educate them about this right.


Until recently, girls in Afghanistan were denied the right to go to school.

Under the Taleban rule, from 1996 to 2001, female education was banned. Women and girls were excluded from all aspects of Afghan educational life, from primary school to university.

The government closed all of the girls' schools in the country and prevented female teachers from working.

Many parents feared that their daughters would grow up illiterate. Some girls were secretly educated in their homes by parents and teachers; others attended underground schools.

Historical Context

At one time, education in Afghanistan was very highly regarded. Until the mid-1990s, the University of Kabul attracted students from Asia and the Middle East, and had links to other educational centres around the globe. Its status began to decline, however, when the Former Soviet Union forces entered Afghanistan in the winter of 1979.

The Taleban imposed restrictions on Afghan educational institutions and demanded that religion be emphasised at the expense of all other subjects. On the Taleban's orders, around half of the country's schools were destroyed.

In 1998, a United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) report revealed nine out of 10 Afghan girls and almost two out of three Afghan boys failed to be enrolled at school.

By 2000, UNICEF reported that only 4 to 5% of Afghan children were being educated at the primary school level. Fewer still had access to secondary and university-level education.


The Taleban fell from power in 2001, after an intensive three-month military campaign led by the US. The country lay in disarray and all schools were suspended.

Soon after, Afghanistan found itself in the centre of the world's attention. International donors negotiated an aid package of $4.5 billion to help rebuild the country.

Reconstructing the education system was a top priority.

Two United Nations agencies, UNICEF and UNESCO, led the reconstruction efforts, working closely with the new interim government, particularly with the ministry of education.

UNICEF's 'Back to School' campaign in Afghanistan was one of the biggest operations in its history. Books and other materials were rushed to schools so that 93% of them would be able to open by March 2002, the first day of term.

Many governments also contributed to the reconstruction effort. The US sent 10 million school textbooks via airlift to Afghanistan, as well as some teacher trainers. Save the Children Fund (SCF), helped renovate and rebuild schools.


In total, more than a million girls are now at school in Afghanistan.

More girls are now attending school in Afghanistan than in the decade before the Taleban introduced its ban on female education.

Several hundred women have also taken the entrance exams required for admission to the University of Kabul. However, there is shortage of trained teachers at every level of education.


The reconstruction of the Afghan educational system, however, is far from complete. There are still around 2 million students living in rural areas, many in refugee camps, who continue to be denied their right to education.

Hostility to girls' education also continues in Afghanistan.

According to an article published in November 2002 in the British The Guardian newspaper, authorities there have been investigating a series of attacks by suspected Taleban sympathisers against girls' schools in the province of Wardak, near Kabul.

Four schools were attacked in the last week of October 2002 in an attempt to stop parents sending their daughters to study. The attackers fired rockets into the schools, and raided them. They also set fire to chairs and blackboards.

According to The Guardian, "The attackers left behind an unexploded grenade and several leaflets warning parents to keep their girls at home."

A Widely Denied Right

The right to free and compulsory education is viewed by many as one of the most fundamental of all human rights.

It is particularly emphasised in the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which is the most widely ratified of all international human rights treaties.

Nonetheless, basic education continues to be denied to at least 125 million children worldwide, according to the Global Campaign for Education, a transnational advocacy organisation made up of nongovernmental organisations and teachers' unions.

One in three of the world's adults continue to be illiterate.