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  • One out of every two Afghan girls drop out of school after Grade 6, often due to family pressures about getting married.
Aga Khan Foundation and Aga Khan Educations Services
Changing attitudes towards secondary education in Afghanistan

“A man educates a person, while a woman educates a family.” -- Afghan proverb

After decades of war in Afghanistan, access to education remains a challenge and the literacy rates – amongst the lowest in the world according to UNESCO – are particularly low for women in rural areas. Mothers during a focus group discussion in Kabul city acknowledged the issue: 

“Most people believe that girls who are 14 years or older should not go to school and some people arrange their marriage. The mindsets have not changed much.”

Research shows that 50% of girls drop out of school after Grade 6 when they reach puberty and have to demonstrate their ability to adhere to social norms. They are at an age where families consider potential suitors and they also take on the responsibility of the “family name”, outweighing the value of education.

Tabasum, a 17-year old lower secondary student in a Community Based Education (CBE) class in Faryab Province has five sisters who were never allowed to go to secondary school after completing their primary education. Their father had decided they should get married before turning 18. The same fate awaited her. She recalled:

“I was so frustrated and lost hope when my family discussed my marriage. I told my family that I did not want to get married at a young age and expressed my wish to complete secondary school because I dreamt of becoming a teacher. However, they went ahead with arranging my marriage.”

Aside from the threat of early marriage, adolescent girls often miss class because they are expected to help their mother with household chores as they get older. Rokhsar, a grade 7 CBE student in Khost Province was absent very regularly. Her mother, herself illiterate, thought that household chores were more important than her education, stating:

“What use is her education? My in-laws get angry when household chores are not performed on time and they want me to involve Rokhsar as well, since learning household chores can help her in future when she starts married life. She is the cause of family arguments and disputes.”

The STAGES (Steps Towards Afghan Girls’ Education Success) II project – funded by DFID through its

Girls’ Education Challenge Fund (GEC) grant scheme and implemented by a consortium of partners led by the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF) –  works with mullahs, school management committee members (SMC) and teachers to slowly change attitudes and gain community support for girls attending secondary education. SMC members and the local community play a fundamental role in encouraging parents to allow girls to attend school and they receive training from STAGES on conflict resolution and follow-up on absenteeism or drop out.

Female SMC members and teachers play a critical role in talking to mothers about the importance of their daughters’ education. In Rokhsar’s case, SMC members went to visit her mother and tried to find a solution to her problem.  Together, they made a list of household chores, set a schedule for each task and distributed a few chores to Rokhsar after class. They requested her family to arrange their chores without arguing and convinced her mother to support Rokhsar and be patient with her so that she could continue her education. Some mothers during a focus group discussion in Baghlan Province said:

“Our daughters are learning in school, we take over the household chores to let them go to their lessons.”

STAGES’ midline survey showed that there was a 20% decrease in the number of men prioritising marriage over school since the beginning of the project, revealing a shift in attitudes around educated women and their value within the household. Parents are increasingly waiting to marry their daughters until they’ve finished their education, and as such, marriage is seen as less common a reason for dropping out of school amongst lower secondary grade students. A mullah in Khinjan District of Baghlan Province, commented:

“Girls here mostly get married early but I recommend for families to either delay the marriage time or allow girls to continue their lessons after marriage.”

STAGES is making a difference in the lives of hundreds of adolescent girls across the country by bringing classes close to their homes and addressing cultural issues they may face. Gulnara, a 16-year-old girl living in Sherin Tagab District of Faryab Province was able to fulfill her dream of going to school thanks to the opening of an Accelerated Learning Program (ALP) class in her village. Her parents had always prevented her from attending school but active SMC members convinced her parents to enrol her and even managed to delay her engagement to a cousin to prevent her from dropping out from school after a year. She is now one of the most active students in her class and feels more confident about her future:

“Education will enable me to have a voice and participate in decision-making process within my family as well as in my future. I would also like to try to encourage other families to send their daughters to school.”

As reported in NORRAG Special Issue 02 published in April 2019, “Community Based Education (CBE) is a proven best practice in Afghanistan… an outreach pathway for children who cannot access education due to lack of schools, long distances, insecurity, and conservative cultural norms that impact girls in particular”. Building on the success of STAGES phase I (2013-2017), whose CBE approach brought together more than 351,000 rural Afghans to help improve girls’ education and whose external evaluations showed “what works” for girls’ education and literacy, STAGES II is now scaling up project activities to help develop the national CBE policy and girls’ education strategy. These activities include:

  • establishing Community Based Education classes in rural communities that are far away from formal schools in order to improve access to education;
  • providing an enabling environment in which adolescent girls can enrol and remain in school;
  • providing Accelerated Learning Programme CBE classes for girls over 10 who have never been to government schools so that they can study two grades within one year in order to catch up with their peers;
  • and establishing Lower Secondary CBE classes to enable girls beyond Grade 6 to continue learning in their community, close to home, where it is more culturally accepted.

STAGES II (Steps Towards Afghan Girls’ Education Success) is a UKAID funded consortium project led by the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF) and implemented by AKF, Save the Children, CARE, Catholic Relief Services, Aga Khan Education Services and the Afghan Education Production Organization, in 16 provinces of Afghanistan.

This project spotlight was adapted from an article written by Sarah Cottereau for the AKF UK website.


STAGES’ midline survey showed that there was a 20% decrease in the number of men prioritising marriage over school since the beginning of the project, revealing a shift in attitudes around educated women and their value within the household.

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