‘Nobody is coming to help us’: Afghan teenage girls on life without school

Just over three years ago, Asma’s* future contained many possibilities. Aged 15, she was at secondary school. After that lay the prospect of university and then onwards, striding forwards into the rest of her life.

Like many Afghan girls, she understood that education was her route out of the isolation and repression that had constricted the lives of her mother and grandmother under the previous Taliban regime. She was part of a new generation of Afghan women who had the chance to build independent and economically autonomous lives.

In May 2021, a few months before Taliban militants swept to power, Asma was in class when bombs began exploding outside her secondary school. She woke up in hospital to learn that 85 people, mostly other schoolgirls, had been killed. By the time she had started to recover, the Taliban were in charge and her chances of returning to school were over for good.

It is now past 1,000 days since the Taliban declared schools only for boys, and an estimated 1.2 million teenage girls such as Asma were in effect banned from secondary schools in Afghanistan.

What has happened to them since has been catastrophic: forced and early marriage, domestic violence, suicide, drug addiction and an eradication from all aspects of public life, with no end in sight.

“We’ve now reached 1,000 days, but there is no end date to the horror of what is happening to teenage girls in Afghanistan,” says Heather Barr from Human Rights Watch. “What the Taliban have done is not put the dreams of all these girls on hold, they have obliterated them.”

Without being able to go to school, Asma’s fate has been predictable. She has been forced into an early marriage to a man she didn’t know, exchanging the four walls of her father’s house for those of her new husband’s family.

She says she begged her parents not to force her into marriage. “When I told them about my studies and dreams, they laughed and said: ‘Since the Taliban has come, girls will never be allowed to study. It’s better to get on with your life and get married,’” says Asma. “[After the wedding], my husband’s family told me, ‘We bought you and paid for you, we didn’t get you for free. So you should be at home and working for us.’”

Now 18, Asma is pregnant. “When I discovered my baby is going to be a girl, the world became dark before my eyes because being a girl here in Afghanistan is not worth it,” she says. “She will never achieve any of her dreams. I wish I was having a boy.”

With diminishing status in society and no protection from the authorities, teenage girls, especially those forced into early marriage, are facing domestic violence inside the home and violence from the authorities outside, say human rights groups.

Benafasha* was 13 years old when the Taliban took power and her family decided that if she couldn’t go to school she had to get married. Her sister Qudsia* says that Benafasha was sent to live with her fiance who was instantly violent, brutally beating and abusing the now 16-year-old.

Qudsia says that Benafasha, desperate and afraid, went to the Taliban courts to ask to be allowed to separate. Instead, they sent her to prison.

“We had pictures demonstrating how he had beaten my sister, and text messages and voice recordings showing how he would insult and beat her,” says Qudsia.

The prospect of a life of social and intellectual isolation and domestic servitude is pushing many teenage girls to deep despair.

A United Nations survey last December found that 76% of women and girls who responded classed their mental health as “bad” or “very bad”, reporting insomnia, depression, anxiety, loss of appetite and headaches as a result of their trauma.

Almost one-fifth of girls and women also said they hadn’t met another woman outside their immediate family in the three preceding months. Another survey from the Afghan digital platform Bishnaw found that 8% of those who took part knew at least one woman or girl who had attempted to kill themselves since August 2021.

Marzia*, the mother of 15-year-old Arzo*, says her daughter has become increasingly withdrawn and depressed since she has been unable to go back to school. “She talks less and sleeps most of the time,” she says.

“I know the reason is the school closure, but there’s nothing we can do,” she says. “I always dreamed that my daughter would study and become a doctor so she could stand on her own feet.”

Barr says the Taliban have taken away “girl’s social networks, their friends, the outside world”. “They can’t go to school, or to national parks, or beauty salons or the gym or, increasingly, outside the house at all without fear of intimidation. They’re taking away everything that makes them human,” she says.

She says the international community cannot continue to ignore what is happening to teenage girls in Afghanistan.

Last month, a report by the UN special rappateur for Afghanistan assessed the dire situation facing girls and women in Afghanistan. “Many [girls now denied a secondary education] are driven to psychological distress, including suicidal thoughts and actions. Denial of access to equal education is causing transgenerational disempowerment that will increasingly ingrain the debased socioeconomic status of Afghan women and girls and their state-enforced dependence on men,” it said.

Fariah*, a mother of a 16-year-old in Kabul says that her daughter is refusing to give up hope that her life is not always going to be the way it has been for the last three years but that she is close to despair.

“It is a tragedy beyond I can express in words, not just for her, but for Afghanistan and for the world,” she says.

“My daughter is among the smartest of her generation, and I am not just saying this as her mother. I have seen first-hand her strong leadership skills, her ambitions and her determination to achieve them. Sometimes, my daughter tells me that she thinks that, by some miracle, school will be back on. I don’t want to crush her optimistic spirit and I tell her, ‘yes, that’s possible’, but deep down, I know it is a lie. I experienced this regime 25 years ago, and they haven’t changed. I don’t have any hope for our future. Nobody is coming to help us.”

Names have been changed

‘Nobody is coming to help us’: Afghan teenage girls on life without school