Opinion: Afghanistan needs aid, but that won’t fix our broken nation. Uplifting girls will.

Opinion by Shabana Basij-Rasikh

Global Opinions contributing columnist
The Washington Post
20 Oct 2021
People exchange money in Kabul on Oct. 7. (Reuters/Jorge Silva)

Furniture being sold on the streets of Kabul by desperate, cash-strapped families. Farmers in Afghan provinces walking a T.S. Eliot-esque wasteland of withered crops and soil turned to dust. Afghanistan, my homeland, is staring into the eyes of its worst humanitarian crisis in well more than a generation — a monster with multiple heads.

Our people are enduring an economic meltdown spurred by the Taliban’s takeover in August, coupled with an ongoing drought some experts classify as our worst in 35 years, one that has already put a third of our population into a state of food insecurity. One that is prompting some parents, out of work and out of options, to sell their daughters to pay off debt.

Imagine writing that last sentence about your own country. Imagine what that feels like.

Last week, I watched the members of the Group of 20 pledge humanitarian assistance for Afghanistan to the tune of more than $1 billion. Although the pledge-makers will not recognize the Taliban’s government, they acknowledged that there is no realistic way to get this full assistance to the Afghan people without involving the Taliban in some way.

This is the same Taliban whose return brought about this financial ruin. The same Taliban that opened schools for boys in grades 7 and up, but not for girls.

I listened to powerful language from leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who said “to stand by and watch 40 million people plunge into chaos because electricity can’t be supplied and no financial system exists, that cannot and should not be the goal of the international community.”

No, it cannot. The goal must be to give a nation’s people the necessary assistance to allow them to build equitable and self-sustaining structures of resilience, structures that can then be strengthened by the alloy of international will.

In this geopolitical “Sophie’s choice,” it is difficult to see the G-20’s decision as anything other than an abhorrent but necessary one. But I also see it as one that must encourage global policymakers to seek out new solutions to head off economic and environmental crises before they can metastasize.

My suggestion to them is two words: Educate girls.

Extremists know the economic power an educated girl can wield; policymakers know — or should know — it, too. A girl who completes secondary school and enters the job market can earn almost twice as much as a girl who never receives an education. This girl becomes a woman with a true level of financial independence: a woman with agency in any male-dominated society.

Educated girls are far less likely to be married at early ages and are far more likely, when they do marry, to raise smaller and healthier families with a smaller environmental footprint. Their ability to weather and withstand the shocks of climate change increases, and they pass these skills on to their children. Climate scientists have known these facts for years, and activists, including me, have written about them regularly.

Educated girls can heal economies and heal the planet. They can spin the world in new directions, becoming teachers, doctors, entrepreneurs. Sometimes they can become the chancellor of Germany.

In Afghanistan, families with nothing to fall back on are ripping themselves open, selling their daughters because these girls are the last valuable asset they have. It’s not due to the employment they may someday hold or the societal change they may someday make. It’s due to the children they may someday bear.

Tell me: What is the value of a girl? What is her education worth?

U.N. Secretary General António Guterres recently warned that if the international community did not “help Afghans weather this storm, and do it soon, not only they but all the world will pay a heavy price,” adding that he was “particularly alarmed to see promises made to Afghan women and girls by the Taliban not being honored.”

When we educate a girl, we create economic and environmental benefits that go far beyond the boundaries of her family. They go beyond the boundaries of her nation. They are benefits that all of us, every woman and man, every citizen of Earth, can share.

Millions of girls are out of school in Afghanistan. At least 130 million girls are out of school worldwide. This cannot continue.

Educate girls. Two words that must become a central pillar of global policymaking. Two words to change the world.

Shabana Basij-Rasikh, a Washington Post Global Opinions contributing columnist, is co-founder and president of the School of Leadership, Afghanistan.
Opinion: Afghanistan needs aid, but that won’t fix our broken nation. Uplifting girls will.