Taliban's nod to girls' education a small, sad step forward

The Taliban's recent decree endorsing education for girls is a sad comment on what is considered progress in Afghanistan, writes Brian Stewart.

'Positive' developments in Afghanistan ring hollow

I always found Afghanistan to be one of those nations so blighted by history and tribalism that even relatively positive news can leave one feeling strangely sad. 

For, when you deal with human rights there, you're often trying to ensure gains that, in other parts of the world, might have been impressive around the 17th century. Even after a decade of UN-mandated intervention and development aid, true rights for millions of women and children remain largely a mirage.

Afghanistan has been knocked out of the news in recent weeks by so many other international stories that its latest "positive" developments have not been noticed.

However, over the past week, the Taliban insurgency has actually declared it is now acceptable for girls to go to school and study after all. See what I mean about good news that can leave you feeling a little down?

Schoolgirls listen to a speech by Afghan President Hamid Karzai during a ceremony marking the start of the school year at Amani High School in Kabul on March 23, 2011. ((Omar Sobhani/Reuters))

The Taliban declares this after brutally denying two whole generations of females an education, and we're all supposed to be grateful?

This is the same Taliban that, when it held power in Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, banned all females from attending schools or colleges and largely imprisoned an entire female population within the home and under the hijab. Girls were forbidden to take part in "outdoor activities."

It is the very same Taliban that in 2008 ordered acid thrown in the faces of 15 girls and their female teachers as a warning to others to avoid schools. Last year alone, it launched more than 500 attacks on schools in which 169 pupils and teachers were killed and 527 were wounded.

Now, however, the Taliban's "supreme leader," Mullah Omar, has issued a decree ordering insurgents not to intimidate schoolchildren. Washing his hands of former policy, Omar now declared that such attacks "are the work of enemies of Afghanistan and Islam."

Children recruited as suicide bombers

The Taliban edict insists schoolgirls and teachers wear the hijab and study only subjects in keeping with religious and cultural values (extreme fundamentalist ones).  Still, Afghan and United Nations officials were almost pathetically grateful for such small mercies.  

A girl covers her face with a scarf during class in the town of Kunjak in southern Afghanistan's Helmand province on Feb. 21, 2011. ((Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters))

"If this is true, it's a major step forward, and we truly welcome it," the UN's office for children and armed conflicts commented. And the word from even the most dangerous provinces, such as Kandahar, seemed to confirm attacks on schools had stopped.

In Kandahar, only 42,000 girls, out of a total provincial population of 900,000, attend school and, until now, did so at great risk. If the Taliban lives up to its word — which is far from a given — enrolment should soar.

I can't help thinking of what the news will mean to Canadians who've served in Kandahar and who were always shocked to their core by the attacks on girls and on schools. Getting girls into school became a near obsession with some officers and troops, who simply could not fathom the depth of Taliban cruelty.  

Afghan children greet a Canadian soldier with the 1st Battalion, the Royal Canadian Regiment, patrolling the Panjwayi district southwest of Kandahar on May 31, 2010. ((Anja Niedringhaus/Associated Press))

Soldiers can usually work up outrage over an enemy, but I never got the sense Canadian soldiers were insincere when it came to their loathing of the Taliban for its treatment of children.

The Taliban, for example, continues to recruit young children into its ranks specifically to act as suicide bombers and to plant roadside bombs, according to the UN and human rights groups. The insurgents have even executed four children on suspicion they spied for the government.

Unfortunately, cruelty toward youth is endemic across Afghanistan and on all sides of the conflict. The government has failed miserably to protect the young from the abuses of war in this land. 

For years, human rights groups have beseeched the government to crack down on the widespread sexual abuse of young boys by units of the Afghan army, police and militia as well as by government officials. 

Boys pose for a photo during a snowfall in Kabul on Feb. 28, 2011. Boys are often the target of sexual abuse by units of the Afghan military, police and militia. ((Omar Sobhani/Reuters))

It has been commonplace throughout this war for armed Afghan units to pick up stray boys, abandoned and usually without identification, and to turn them into a combination of mascots and sex slaves, a practice known as bacha bazi (literally, boy play).

Scores of protests have been made to the Afghan government to try and end the practice, but far from dying out, it shows signs now of expanding as the U.S. and Nato set up new local militias to guard against insurgents. Once again, young boys have been heavily targeted by "recruiters."

"The militias are hiring young, underage boys in their ranks for different illicit purposes," Haji Abdul Rahim, a tribal elder, recently complained in Kandahar.  

Other elders accuse the militias of simply kidnapping teenage boys for sexual slavery.

Abuse occurred on NATO's watch

For more than four years, it must be noted, this has taken place under the nose of Canadian troops, who are based in Kandahar and train both army and police units. 

"While in many areas of southern Afghanistan such treatment of boys appears to be shrouded in some sense of secrecy, in Kandahar, it constitutes an openly celebrated cultural tradition," a Pentagon consultant wrote in 2009. 

But while Canadians might have seen more of this practice, all Nato troops were aware and looked the other way to avoid political friction — and they still do.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai carries children during a press conference in Kabul on Nov. 24, 2010. The government has done little to protect the rights of children. ((Omar Sobhani/Reuters))

The reality is, it wasn't until this year, after years of complaints from world bodies, that Afghanistan finally signed an agreement with the UN to ban the use of children as soldiers and stop the trade in sex slaves.  

It only acted when the UN put Afghanistan on a blacklist of 13 nations abusing child soldiers, right up there with the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda. Even now, it is nowhere near certain that the government will actually act given that its own armed forces are complicit in widespread rape and prostitution.

In a short space of time, we have the Taliban vowing to let girls go to school and the Afghan government promising to stop the mass sexual abuse of boys.

It rings hollow. The fact that it has taken this long tells me how very little trust we can place in either of them when it comes to justice and human rights.

That's why Afghanistan's "positive" news still leaves one feeling sad at the thought of all the lives blighted and hopes lost just getting to this sorry point.