Afghanistan has been ravaged decades of wars and armed conflicts, though shifting in its dynamics and intensity throughout the years, has remained a prohibiting factor for investment in basic social services throughout the country, such as education. Women in Afghanistan have been particularly vulnerable and have been historically disadvantaged in regards to accessing education.1 Although significant amounts of funding and political will have focused on girls’ education throughout the past two decades, literacy rates for both women and girls remain astoundingly low.1 Women face a myriad of barriers for achieving even basic literacy, ranging from challenging terrain and distance to schools to cultural norms such as child marriage.2 Despite such barriers, protective factors against illiteracy exist within Afghanistan, and an understanding of these factors may guide future investments in education service provision for women within Afghanistan. While some protective factors may be immutable or more difficult to capitalize upon when designing interventions, others such as women’s empowerment can be harnessed and fostered in order to increase literacy in settings where significant gaps in education remain.
In response to the attacks of September 11th, the United States launched “Operation Enduring Freedom” and entered Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban regime3. Within a short period, the Taliban were no longer in control of the country, and an interim government was established in December 20013. Although one phase of the conflict had ended, intra-state conflict persisted as the Taliban and other armed groups continued to fight for control over parts of the country, often deliberately targeting civilians and civilian sites, such as hospitals and educational institutions4,5. Religious minorities, most often the Hazara minority who practice Shi’a Islam (as opposed to the Sunni majority) and are typically less politically and religiously conservative, were cruelly targeted by the Taliban and frequent recipients of these civilian attacks6,7.
With the defeat of the Taliban at the end of 2001, women were once again permitted to attend school in Afghanistan and to learn to read, though continued conflict disrupted their ability to access education and remain in school4. Families typically are less comfortable sending female children to school than boy children in insecure conditions1,8. Families who have been displaced due to armed conflict face additional barriers to education, including obtaining necessary documentation or moving away from school locations8.
Conflict and education have a bi-directional, causal relationship, in which access to education can result in greater peace and the presence of conflict can prevent access to education9,10,11,12. In fragile, conflict-affected settings, education has been documented to serve as a protective factor for children, countering the effects of trauma by supporting emotional well-being and cognitive development13,14,15.
The Afghan government and its international partners and donors often prioritize more immediate emergency response activities, such as providing food, water, and shelter5,12,13. It remains difficult for stakeholders to champion the education of women in fragile contexts such as Afghanistan. Unfortunately, as Afghanistan continues to suffer both from protracted conflict and lack of basic social service provision, women in Afghanistan remain particularly vulnerable to being out of school, and ultimately, illiterate1.
Women’s Empowerment and Literacy
Literature points to positive associations between women’s empowerment and literacy; for example, in rural Mozambique, women’s autonomy was associated with the probability of girls’ enrollment in schools16. Though this association exists, empowerment has been conceptualized many ways, and cannot be fully captured by individual indicators (such as years of schooling or age of marriage)17. Rather, empowerment may incorporate psychological, educational, relational, collective, political, financial, global, and other dimensions18,19. Collective and individual empowerment are connected, as internalized feelings of empowerment or disempowerment may come from societal and familial cues and habits, and individuals may be change makers for collective autonomy18. Empowerment has been conceptualized not only as an outcome but also as a process by which women are able to access skills, including literacy20. Because of the complexity in conceptualizing empowerment across spheres, in this paper we focus specifically on measurements that look at decision-making, and the relationship that decision-making has to literacy.
Studies in both Rwanda and the United States (U.S.) found that the roles of marriage and household decision-making served as mechanisms by which gender gaps in financial literacy existed21,22. Though reading and writing literacy precedes financial literacy, such findings suggest that factors such as marriage could be worth examining further.
There is a dearth of literature on the connection between marriage, household decision-making autonomy, and access to education in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, advocacy efforts after the fall of the first Taliban regime in 2001 have focused on empowering women as a means to increasing access to quality social services, such as education and health care23,24,25. In a project in neighboring Pakistan, empowerment was identified as a key mechanism for improving literacy outcomes for women, and implementers targeted empowerment by offering comprehensive courses on life-skills and social-emotional learning26. Similar efforts have been integrated into educational curriculum for classrooms in Afghanistan27. However, social-emotional skills may only be useful for increasing literacy outcomes if gender dynamics exist at a household level that enable women and women to exercise their social and emotional skills through partaking in household decision-making.
Barriers and Facilitators to Educating Women in Afghanistan
The Constitution of Afghanistan was ratified in 2004 and mandates nine years of free, basic education for all Afghan children. In public schools, education is now free up until the university level28,29. Despite the Afghan government’s desire to expand education by providing education free of charge, the government did not have the capacity to address the high numbers of out of school children and to ameliorate a dilapidated national education system2,8.
Out of School Children
Data on out-of-school children in Afghanistan vary significantly and can be questionable in terms of their accuracy. Nonetheless, frequent reports reference a concerning number of out of school children in Afghanistan, most of whom are women1,2,8,30. Even in the most optimistic reports, the percentage of Afghan women who are enrolled in school has never been higher than 50%8. In 2017, Human Rights Watch estimated that two thirds of women are out of school, and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) (in collaboration with the Afghan government) reported that 66% of women age 12-15 were out of school, compared to 40% of boys in the same age group8,30.
Financial Barriers to Education
Although public schools do not require tuition in Afghanistan, families still incur costs for sending their children to school. School supplies, which include pens and pencils, notebooks, uniforms, backpacks, and textbooks, are often costly for families who are already living in poverty8. The Afghan Ministry of Education itself struggles to afford textbooks. While it is the responsible party for supplying textbooks to schools, there are often shortages due to logistical or supply challenges8. Such financial barriers render families unable to send their children to school in the first place, or cause children to be ill-supplied to learn well as they are attending school. Increases in wealth may serve as a protective factor against illiteracy by enabling parents to afford to send children to school, and on a more macro-level, enabling the Ministry of Education to better resource its schools.
Physical and Geographical Barriers to Education
Afghanistan is a predominantly rural and mountainous country with harsh terrains and climates, which can make travel to and from the nearest school challenging for women. According to Human Rights Watch8, women in rural areas are most likely to be out of school. Further, a survey shows that Afghans in urban areas were much more likely to be satisfied with the current provision of education near their home than Afghans in rural areas (80.1% and 63.67%, respectively)31.
Even when nearby schools do exist, buildings are often overcrowded and lacking in furniture and supplies2. Nearly half (41%) of Afghan schools do not have buildings and children are forced to study outside8. Children with physical or intellectual disabilities are typically excluded from education due to transportation, pedagogical, or building access barriers32. Women who do attend school and are of menstruation age are forced to stay at home during their menstruation period due to inadequate sanitation facilities, such as a dearth of gender-segregated toilet facilities or running water1,8. Missing school each month makes it challenging for women to keep up with the pace of the curriculum and can increase their risk of dropping out of school entirely. Another gender-specific barrier is the absence of female teachers throughout the country1. As the older generation was school-aged during turbulent years when education was illegal for women, there remains a shortage of qualified female teachers, which then reduces the likelihood that women will attend school12,27.
According to Afghan law, child marriage is considered to be illegal before the age of 16 for women and the age of 18 for boys. Nevertheless, child marriage is highly prevalent in Afghanistan, and the lack of law enforcement and absence of effective systems to register marriages contribute to its prevalence33. According to the Demographic and Health Survey 2015 findings in Afghanistan, women marry four years earlier than men, on average. For “ever-married” men and women between the ages of 15-49, the median age of first marriage for women is 18.5 years, while the median age of first marriage for men was 22.9 years34.
The pervasiveness of poverty is a key driver of child marriage throughout the country35, despite the fact that many parents may hope to delay marriages for their children. One recent study shows that over a third of parents in surveyed provinces believe that marriage should ideally wait until post-secondary education36. Child marriage is a frequent cause of school drop-out or lack of enrollment for women8. In addition, child marriage is correlated with maternal and infant health challenges and violence against women33. Thus, waiting longer for marriage may increase the odds of being literate for women in Afghanistan, though access to greater wealth and economic empowerment may facilitate later marriages.
Investments in Education
Afghanistan’s 2001, post-Taliban government faced two critical challenges: establishing a functioning education system after decades of armed conflict, and increasing access to education for women and women who had been prohibited from going to school during the Taliban rule. Former President Hamid Karzai partnered with international institutions who were eager to pour money into a new, democratic Afghanistan8. In 2002, The Karzai administration launched a “Back to School” campaign, embracing the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Education for All (EFA) goals27,37. The EFA framework, in conjunction with the second Millennium Development Goal of ‘achieving universal primary education’, accentuates the need to focus on expanding education to marginalized groups, including women and children with disabilities37. As a result, the “Back to School” campaign made considerable progress towards these goals within the first decade of the new government, recruiting and training large numbers of teachers, constructing several thousand schools, and thereby increasing enrollment by close to 800%27.
Such initiatives continued throughout the past two decades, and community-based education emerged as a desirable model for filling the gaps in education throughout the country. In the community-based education model, teachers (often without formal training) are equipped and mentored to deliver primary and secondary education to students in rural areas of Afghanistan1,38. These community-based classrooms are resourced by funding from international organizations and are fed into the formal education system under the Ministry of Education38. This model had key advantages in low-resource areas, as classroom space was typically provided in a home or mosque rather than an official school building5,12,38.
Early data appeared promising, and after just a decade of investment, literacy rates among girls and boys rose from 29% and 43% in 2005 to 48% and 64% in 2012, respectively39. In the last decade, the Girls’ Education Challenge, funded by United Kingdom aid (UKAID) with later collaboration with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), provided nearly $100 million of funding towards accelerated and community-based education for women. These projects targeted over 80,000 of the country’s most marginalized women in 17 provinces throughout the country38. Such investments in high-quality education are critical for increasing literacy, yet remain threatened as the political landscape in Afghanistan deteriorates.
Aims and Rationale
The objective of this study is to explore the impact of empowered female household decision-making on literacy for women in Afghanistan who were of school-age after the fall of the first Taliban regime in 2001. We draw on data from Afghanistan’s Demographic and Health Survey (AfDHS) collected in 2015 to test our hypotheses that women in households reporting greater empowered decision-making will have greater odds of being literate, and that age of first cohabitation (marriage) will moderate the relationship between empowered decision-making and literacy. We expect that when women are more empowered in their decision-making within the household, their odds of becoming literate will be higher. However, the age that women marry will affect the relationship between empowerment and literacy. Child marriage is a key cause of school drop-out, and even empowered females may leave school and remain illiterate if they marry younger.
While much attention has been devoted to funding Afghanistan education and increasing access to education for Afghan women in recent years, to our knowledge, no prior study has used a nationally representative sample to explore predictors of literacy for these young women. In fact, there is very little peer-reviewed literature on education and literacy outcomes in general in Afghanistan, and this study intends to fill that gap by utilizing AfDHS data. We account for other covariates that have been documented in the literature to affect literacy and education in Afghanistan. We have selected literacy as our outcome variable rather than years of education, as quality of education remains a significant issue and literacy rates remain low. A recent analysis of literacy rates and education across nearly 50 developing countries suggested that 40% of women would still be illiterate even after completing grade six40. As incredible barriers exist for access to education in the first place, and the ability to learn well within under-resourced schools, many women could remain illiterate after attending years of school.