A year on from the Taliban’s return, Natasha Phillips explores how young people’s lives have been turned upside-down in Afghanistan

Over the past 20 years, children in Afghanistan have been caught up in deadly conflict as political factions vie for power, with an estimated 33,000 children killed or injured during this period.

While school bombings, acute poverty and discrimination against girls were widespread in Afghanistan before the Taliban returned to power on 15 August 2021, one year on from the start of the Islamist group’s rule, Afghans fear the worst is yet to come. 

That fear is mainly rooted in emerging child health and education crises that have left more than one million children at risk of severe acute malnutrition and prevented at least 3.7 million children from attending school. 

Failures by the Taliban to manage the country’s economy, the suspension of foreign aid, and international sanctions on Afghanistan, driven by concerns about the Taliban’s de facto government, have accelerated an already dire humanitarian situation. 

Dr Haji Gul is a paediatrician in the medicines ward at the Indira Gandhi Children’s Hospital in the capital city of Kabul. Despite being Afghanistan’s largest paediatric hospital, the medical centre is struggling to cope with the growing number of children needing treatment. 

“Before the Taliban takeover, 600 children were admitted to the hospital for malnutrition in six months,” Dr Gul told Byline Times. “During the first six months of the takeover, that number increased to more than 700 child admissions for severe acute malnutrition, but we can only admit 360 children per day.”

The hospital’s outpatient department has also been inundated, with more than 2,000 children arriving every day, according to Dr Gul.

Often, a child will be admitted to hospital with life-threatening malnutrition, more than once.

“One of the saddest days of my job is always the day where the mother and the child are being let out of hospital,” Sam Mort, chief of communication, advocacy and civic engagement for UNICEF Afghanistan, said. “You would think from what we’ve experienced growing up in Britain that the day you get out of hospital is a happy day, because your child is healthy and has had two weeks of treatment. These mothers cry because they say we’re going back to hell: no food, no medicine.”

Speaking from the charity’s Jalalabad office, Mort told Byline Times that “they know the same cycle is going to start again” and “sure enough: the child comes back into hospital, a little bit weaker. Sometimes she’s discharged, sometimes he dies.” 

Girls at a primary school in a remote part of Kabul. Photo: ‘Fatima’

Other dangers loom large in Afghanistan, particularly for girls. 

“The beating happened during the first week of July,” said 15-year-old Fatima (not her real name). “I was travelling in a taxi because I had to go and work, I had no choice. The car was stopped at a check point and I was dragged out. The Taliban officials spoke very badly to me and used foul language. Then one hit me with the butt of a gun.” 

Women and girls in Afghanistan are not allowed to travel without a male chaperone and are discouraged from taking taxis. The ever-growing restrictions on their lives, including a ban on attending classes once they finish primary school and ongoing school bombings particularly in areas housing ethnic and religious minorities, have reinforced a heightened sense of terror in children. 

Anxiety affects every aspect of Fatima’s life. “Seeing how [my home town] fell and then Kabul fell, and then everything fell, developed a growing fear in me,” she told Byline Times. “There are increasing attacks where I live, with many people being killed. Every part of my life is filled with a sense of insecurity. Things have become more difficult for girls. The most devastating impact has been the closure of schools for us.” 

Secondary schools for girls aged 12 to 17 were closed by the Taliban on 23 March – just days after Afghanistan’s education ministry announced that the schools would remain open. Defying the ban, governors in nine out of the country’s 34 provinces kept their girls’ secondary schools running. Two more governors followed suit months later, taking the number of provinces up to 11, in what is seen by child welfare experts as a significant development. 

For high school-aged girls who don’t live in these provinces, a lifeline has appeared in the form of ‘secret schools’ spreading across the country, often with support from male relatives. The schools are set up in one room inside a house and typically hold between 16 to 20 girls. On arrival, they are given internet bundles so they can study freely and prepare for university, in the hope that the ban on higher education might be lifted one day. 

Surya (not her real name), a teacher in Afghanistan, has been helping to set up these ‘secret schools’ across the country. 

“We have seen many young boys come forward to help us establish ‘secret schools’,” she said. “They are the ones who are walking their sisters to these classes. There is a zeal and a courage among children to come forward and help girls continue with their education.” 

Speaking about the current syllabus in Afghanistan provided by the Taliban, Surya said: “Essential subjects in the curriculum have also been taken out. For instance biology, information on reproduction, parts of the body for men and women. This knowledge is vital for children growing up but they have been taken out of the syllabus not just in schools but in universities as well.” 

Despite the decision to keep some schools open for girls, Surya added that there were still incidents of intimidation, kidnappings and physical attacks against students, parents and teachers by Taliban officials and pro-Taliban members of the community.  

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One Young World Peace Ambassador Breshna Musazai – known as ‘Afghanistan’s Malala’ after she was shot three times by the Taliban in 2016 – fled the country on 17 August 2021. She has spent more than a year living in a military camp in Qatar waiting for her US visa application to be processed. Musazai has been teaching Afghan girls at the base, to counteract a shortage of chairs in the camp’s classrooms.

Speaking from the camp, Musazai said she had been in touch with young people in Afghanistan. “The young feel hopeless and depressed,” she told Byline Times. “Children don’t have a good future in Afghanistan. Afghan children were already affected by the war, but the Taliban takeover has made things worse.

“They should understand that education is a must for both girls and boys, but this won’t happen without the world’s support.”

UNICEF has repeatedly asked the Taliban why it has chosen to roll-back girls’ education. In an 8 August response to the latest request for an explanation, Taliban officials told the charity that “cultural sensitivities” were responsible for preventing girls from going back to school. 

“We’ve also been told that it’s about what the girls will wear to school, which is a barrier,” Sam Mort said. “We’ve also been told the school curriculum is a barrier. But most notably when UNICEF asks ‘how can we help you overcome these barriers to get girls back to school?’, we are not given any clear guidance on how we can help.

“On the other hand, we’re seeing an increasing demand for girls’ education coming from fathers, elders and religious leaders as well as girls and mothers themselves.” 

Meanwhile, girls in Afghanistan like Fatima are preparing for the future. 

“I am determined to keep studying,” she told Byline Times. “My message to the world is to help us further – to help us find more ways to solve this situation. No matter how many weapons and hurdles are in front of us, we have dreams, plans and goals, and we will achieve them. We will not give up.”

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