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Report shows major setbacks in education in Afghanistan since the Taliban took over

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The Taliban's deputy foreign minister, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, said this week that girls and women should have access to education in Afghanistan. This is a rare public criticism of a policy the Taliban put in place when they took over in 2021. But for now, girls and women cannot be educated beyond the sixth grade. And a new report out this week by Human Rights Watch shows that the education of boys is also suffering under the Taliban. Heather Barr is associate director of the Women's Rights Division at Human Rights Watch. She helped produce that report and joins us now from Cape Town, South Africa. Thanks so much for being with us.

HEATHER BARR: Thanks for inviting me.

SIMON: I gather Human Rights Watch interviewed high school boys grades 8 through 12, as well as their parents in several provinces around the country. What did they find?

BARR: It was all bad news, I'm afraid. What we heard from these boys and their parents across a bunch of different provinces in different parts of the country was when the Taliban took over, they fired all of the women who worked in boys' schools. And some of the boys we talked to didn't have any male teachers. And so that meant that all of their teachers vanished overnight. So suddenly, you had boys who might be in high school and were being taught by new male teachers, or in some cases, they didn't actually get replacement teachers at all, and so they sat in a classroom trying to learn themselves from their book without any teacher at all. Second issue was big changes to the curriculum - subjects like art, culture, sports all being replaced with more religious studies.

And then the third issue that we really heard about a lot from these boys was a really alarming increase in the use of corporal punishment. One of the things that we heard again and again was boys describing being sort of pulled up in front of an assembly in the morning with the entire school gathered and being beaten, often on the soles of their feet for perceived infractions like wearing clothing that was perceived as being somehow Western.

Boys said that a lot of boys had stopped coming to school. They didn't feel like there was any point anymore - and that a lot of them were having huge mental health struggles.

SIMON: Have the schools become what amount to mass indoctrination academies?

BARR: I think that that's certainly the direction that things seem to be going in. I think there's a lot of reason to worry about that.

SIMON: Can you help us understand - isolate for us any individual things that that some of the boys said that touched you in particular?

BARR: Some of it that was really difficult to hear was about boys that had been looking forward to taking their college entrance exams, going on and had ideas for their careers, and who now felt like there wasn't really any point in going on.

SIMON: What do you hear from parents? How are they responding? What are they concerned about? - the long-range effects on their sons and daughters.

BARR: Yeah. I mean, they're distressed as well, you know? Of course they want their sons to study, and their daughters can't, and they hoped that at least their sons could. I think some of what's happening to boys also is that they're feeling under a huge amount of pressure because their sisters can't study. And so now suddenly they're solely responsible for, you know, the future financial well-being of their families. And this is happening also in the context of a very serious humanitarian and economic crisis.

We also heard about boys dropping out because they need to try to go to Iran or to Pakistan to try to find work, and they may or may not make it there. And once they make it there, they'll face all kinds of discrimination and risk, and then we also know that there are mass deportations.

SIMON: Should we be at all surprised by this? I mean, hasn't - the Taliban has done this before, and haven't they essentially said, this is the society we want to create?

BARR: I don't think we should be surprised that the Taliban are behaving in this way. I think we should be surprised that the international community, including the United States, seems so comfortable with the role that they played in creating this situation.

SIMON: You make a series of recommendations. What are they?

BARR: Well, I mean, the Taliban obviously should hire back all the female teachers, stop all of their violations of the rights of women and girls and boys and men, allow girls to go to school, stop changing the curriculum, stop engaging in corporal punishment.

You know, how realistic is it to think that the Taliban would follow any of these recommendations? Not very. Then the United Nations should be doing everything they can to try to stop these harmful things that are happening in the education system and to be putting pressure on the Taliban and to be - you know, they also need to think about whether there have to be other ways for children, girls and boys, to get education during this time when things are so impossible in the regular school system.

SIMON: Heather Barr, associate director of the Women's Rights Division at Human Rights Watch. Thanks so much.

BARR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Lennon Sherburne