The Taliban’s Impact on Boys’ Education in Afghanistan
The Taliban in Afghanistan have been globally condemned for banning girls and women from secondary school and higher education, but there has been less attention to the ways in which they have also inflicted deep harm on boys’ education in the country.
Human Rights Watch interviewed boys and parents of boys across 8 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces and found an alarming deterioration in boys’ access to education and the quality of their education. This not only has serious implications for them and their families, but also for the country’s future, including with respect to women’s rights and overall human rights in Afghanistan.
Many boys were previously taught by women teachers; the Taliban has prohibited women from teaching boys, depriving women teachers of their jobs and often leaving boys with unqualified replacement male teachers or sometimes no teachers at all. Parents and students said that corporal punishment, which has long been a problem at Afghan schools, has become increasingly common. The curriculum in many schools appears to be under revision to remove important school subjects and promote discrimination. The human rights economic, and humanitarian crises in the country has also placed greater demands on school boys. These circumstances have led many boys to leave school altogether; those who remain attend classes with few students and sometimes no teachers. This has left boys struggling with mental health problems such as anxiety and depression in a context where mental health services are very difficult to obtain.
The education crisis for boys as well as girls in Afghanistan needs an immediate and effective international response. In addition to calling for an end to the ban on girls and women from secondary and higher education, concerned governments should press for the rehiring of women teachers, the inclusion of school subjects that are part of a quality education, and an end to corporeal punishment. United Nations agencies, treaty bodies, and special procedures should focus their attention on the way boys are treated in Afghan schools as well as the banning of girls.
Human Rights Watch conducted remote interviews with 22 schoolboys attending grades 8 to 12 and 5 parents of boys in the same grade range in Kabul, Balkh, Herat, Farah, Parwan, Bamiyan, Nangarhar and Daikundi provinces between June-August 2022 and March-April 2023. These provinces cover a large part of the country and are diverse in terms of ethnicity.
Students at the secondary school level were interviewed because most of their education was during the government in power until August 2021, which allowed them to better compare the environment, changes, and challenges. All of those interviewed were students or parents of students attending public schools in cities.
The interviews were conducted using secure communications. Pseudonyms have been used in the report to protect the identities of those interviewed, and any personal and specific information has been anonymized.
Afghanistan’s education system has undergone a deepening crisis since the Taliban regained control of the country in August 2021. While the Taliban’s prohibition of secondary education and higher education for girls and women has grabbed headlines, the rights violations extend beyond the severe restrictions imposed on girls’ and women’s education. Boys attending schools across different Afghan provinces report a series of new or heightened barriers to their education, including the absence of female teachers, the increased use of corporal punishment, reduced attendance rates, the elimination of subjects like arts, sports, English language, and civic education, a decline in educational quality, increased anxiety about attending school, and a loss of hope for the future. The Taliban’s prohibition of girls from attending secondary school and higher education along with the infliction of serious harms to the system to educate boys is deeply incompatible with international human rights standards and best practices.
In September 2021, in disregard of their public commitments to allow girls to continue studying, the Taliban reinstated much of their policy during their previous rule from 1996 to 2001 by prohibiting teenage girls from attending secondary school. In the face of a broad outcry from Afghan people and the global community, the Taliban have not fulfilled their promise to reopen secondary schools for girls. In December 2022, they extended their ban to women, preventing them from pursuing higher education at the university level.
In contrast, boys ostensibly retain access to education, mirroring the situation during the Taliban’s previous rule. But the Taliban’s efforts to expand social control though remaking society at all levels is not limited to dominating the lives of women and girls. They have also made wholesale, if less visible, changes to the system of education for boys and men. These changes will also have deeply harmful, long-term effects on Afghanistan’s population and future.
In the decades before the civil war began in 1978, Afghanistan had begun to modernize its education system. From the 1970s these efforts were often imposed with force and met with violent resistance. State schools were few and largely limited to urban areas. In 45 years of war, fighting destroyed thousands of schools and madrasas (Islamic schools); many teachers and students were either killed in the fighting or fled as refugees.
During their rule from 1996 to 2001, the Taliban banned girls and women from all educational life. Boys and men could still receive an education, but the content of that education was strictly limited. The Taliban allowed boys to attend madrasas, where their studies were mostly limited to strict interpretations of the Quran and their classes were taught by a mullah (a Muslim cleric), not professional teachers. While some other subjects, such as mathematics, were taught, others, including modern science and art, were not. The Taliban enforced a dress code for boys, requiring them to wear traditional perahan tunban (a loose-fitting, knee-length tunic over baggy trousers) and grow their beards as soon as they reached puberty. Education under Taliban rule at this time violated the right to education, as well as the rights of women and to be free from ethnic and religious discrimination.
After the United States-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and the creation of interim and later transitional governments, the education system underwent rapid and sweeping changes. The government of Afghanistan, which was established in 2004, undertook reforms with the help of international partners and organizations in line with its international obligations to respect the rights of children, including under the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. In the continuing armed conflict between the Afghan government and multinational forces against the Taliban, both sides used schools for military purposes and the Taliban deliberately targeted schools for attack.
Afghan education experts, both women and men, designed new school curriculums, expanding subjects beyond religious subjects. Government schools taught religion, science, mathematics, Dari and Pashto literature, English language, history, culture, art, and civic education; in some schools, sports were added for both boys and girls. The government system included both schools and madrasas; the madrasas followed most of the government curriculum, but with additional time for religious studies. However, corruption in building schools and hiring teachers, poor infrastructure, and inadequate resources, particularly in rural areas, as well as worsening security contributed to falling enrollments after 2014. The previous absence of quality education for boys and none for girls meant that even with the education system’s problems and flaws, real advances in education were made after decades of decline, offering hope to many.
The Taliban, after their return to power, engineered a swift reversal of this progress. In September 2021, after only a month back in power, they once again banned girls from secondary education. On December 20, 2022, the Taliban then banned women from attending university education. But the Taliban’s efforts to marginalize women and girls have gone far beyond blocking them from getting an education. Their evident goal is a society in which women have no role in public life and are tightly controlled by male family members is further advanced by the education boys receive in schools, including indoctrinating them into the Taliban’s misogyny.
Taliban Violations of Boys’ Right to Education
While the Taliban have not prohibited boys’ education, they persistently undermine the educational system in Afghanistan. By effectively prohibiting girls’ access to secondary and higher education, the Taliban’s harmful and discriminatory gender-based practices not only deny Afghan girls their right to education but also have adverse effects on boys. Under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which Afghanistan ratified in 2003, governments are obligated to ensure “the elimination of any stereotyped concept of the roles of men and women at all levels and in all forms of education.”
Dismissal of Female Teachers
In late September 2021, the Taliban effectively banned women from most employment. Many teachers had already lost their jobs because they worked in now-shuttered girls’ secondary schools, but this new ban brought another wave of dismissals of female teachers, this time those working in boys’ schools.
The Taliban’s ban on women’s employment has not only denied thousands of female teachers their right to work but has also caused major disruption to the education of the many schoolboys who were previously taught by female teachers. Students in many provinces of Afghanistan described to Human Rights Watch a severe lack of professional teachers due to the Taliban’s ban. Students said that secondary school administrators have often responded to the loss of female teachers for technical and science subjects by appointing unqualified or less qualified male teachers, including some whose prior teaching experience was at the primary school level. Students in multiple schools in marginalized provinces of Daikundi and Bamiyan reported that Taliban-appointed school administrators were hiring male community workers or any men with a high school diploma after removing their female teachers. In several schools in Kabul province, the situation is even worse, and there have been no replacements, leaving some students literally sitting in class with no teacher.
Our female teachers had specializations in the subjects they taught: they were professionals. We are suffering from their absence now.
Wahid M., grade 12
“For grades 10, 11, and 12, we had a total of 16 female teachers and 4 male teachers,” said Wahid M., a student in grade 12 in Kabul. “Our female teachers had specializations in the subjects they taught: they were professionals. We are suffering from their absence now, and our four male teachers also fled the country after August 2021. Currently, we are taught by male teachers who would previously teach grades 4 and 5.”
Nateq A. was in grade 12 at a large public school in Kabul. He said, “90 percent of teachers teaching grades 10, 11, and 12 at my school were female. After the Taliban came to power, they were replaced with male teachers. For my class, four new teachers have been assigned. They spend more time talking about religion, the Prophet Muhammad’s way of life, and the Taliban’s victory of jihad against the US and the West, than teaching their assigned subjects.”
“The newly hired teachers have highly aggressive behavior toward the students, so the school environment is full of fear,” said Shafiq M., a student in grade 9 in Mazar-e-Sharif in Balkh province.
Some new teachers also bring language barriers into the classroom. Shafiq M. said: “Twelve new male teachers have been hired, most of them speak the Pashto language while most of the students don’t fully or [even] partially understand Pashto. One of our new teachers even teaches mathematics in the Pashto language, and we don’t understand a thing.”
The teachers’ limitations have obliged students to become self-taught. Muhammad K., a student in Kabul said, “The new teachers are not explaining the lessons.” He said that the new teachers are so unskilled that students have no choice but to try to teach themselves, using whatever books are available to them.
Several students from different provinces told Human Rights Watch they have vacant hours during the school day when there are no lessons because of the absence of the female teachers and the lack of replacement teachers. So they end up doing nothing.
Muhammad A. was in grade 12, a critical year for university exam preparation. He studied at a large public school with 1,000 students that had been well-regarded for the quality of education it provided. Previously the school had more female than male teachers. He said, “Out of 14 subjects, we [now] only have teachers for 7 subjects, and 7 subjects are not taught. These subjects include physics, biology, skills, computer, English, and art.” He added:
These subjects are not even removed by the Taliban; they aren’t taught because our female teachers were dismissed. Therefore, I have to take private classes outside of school. But these classes are costly, and not everyone can afford them. In my family, four out of five of us are going to school, and my family can hardly afford my classes.
Muhammad A.’s eldest brother is the only breadwinner in the family, so taking private classes is difficult: “We seriously miss our female teachers. It’s a huge loss.”
In Afghanistan’s central Daikundi province, Qasim R., a student in grade 10, said, “A social worker is appointed to teach us science subjects. Education is turning into a joke these days.”
Students consistently reported that the quality of education has dropped significantly. They said that the newly hired teachers mainly focus on moral values, dress code, and hair styles, making a distinction between Western styles and Islamic values. They emphasize the Taliban’s view of women’s Islamic rights instead of focusing on school subjects.
Students and family members told Human Rights Watch that following the Taliban takeover, the use of corporal punishment at school increased. Students said that school officials used humiliation, beating, slapping, and foot whipping during morning assemblies as forms of discipline. They also said that officials from the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice often visited their schools, sometime on a regular schedule and sometimes through surprise inspections, enforcing draconian rules and interfering with the role of the proper school authorities.
I have been beaten and badly humiliated during the morning assembly in front of everyone, once for having a mobile phone with me and the second time for my hairstyle. They cut my hair in front of everyone during the morning assembly, saying it resembled “Western style,” and after that, I was punished with foot whipping.
Under the previous government, boys were expected to wear a school uniform consisting of a blue or white shirt and dark trousers. The students interviewed for this report said that since the Taliban takeover the uniform has changed, and they are now required to wear traditional Afghan clothing. Habib A., in grade 9 in Herat province said, “In the beginning, when the government changed, some of my classmates and I had a hard time quickly changing from the pants-and-shirt uniform to perahan tunban, and because of that, we each got two slaps and were kept out of the classroom for the entire day.”
Corporal punishment of children is a violation of their human rights. The use of violence to punish children causes unnecessary pain and suffering, is degrading, and harms children’s development, educational success, and mental health. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has found that all corporal punishment is prohibited under international law, and all children have the right to an education in an environment free from violence. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which has been ratified by nearly all countries around the world, including Afghanistan in 1994, lays out children’s rights to education, safety, and protection from violence. The convention prohibits physical and mental violence in any form, neglect or negligent treatment, exploitation, including corporal punishment in all settings including schools, as a method of disciplining children.
Afghanistan’s 2008 Education Act in article 39 explicitly prohibits any form of punishment at school. The article on the “Prohibition of Physical and Psychological Punishment,” states that, “Every kind of physical and psychological punishment of students is prohibited, even for their correction and chastisement. Violators shall be prosecuted in accordance with the legal provisions.”
Corporal punishment has been a longstanding problem in schools in Afghanistan. Even before the Taliban’s return to power, it was not uncommon for teachers to use physical punishment. A 2008 study in Afghanistan found that violence against children was widely used and socially accepted within Afghan society, families, and schools. Hitting with sticks or rulers, kicking, slapping, and foot whipping students were used as forms of discipline.
While corporal punishment has been a long-standing problem, students in various provinces and schools consistently reported a significant rise in this practice since the Taliban came back to power. Their descriptions of abuse echo a similar rise in corporal punishment for moral crimes that the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) has documented.
Zaman A., a student in Herat, said:
The Taliban’s strict rules are suffocating. Currently, as a student, wearing anything colorful is treated like a sin. Wearing shirts, t-shirts, ties, suits are all treated like crimes. Having a smartphone at school can have serious consequences. Listening to music or having music on one’s phone can lead to severe physical punishment. Every day, there are several cases where boys get punished during morning assembly or in classrooms for some of these reasons.
According to Muhammad R.:
School is not fun like it used to be before. The constant fear of a sudden visit from the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice has made it even more stressful. Some boys escape school and smoke cigarettes and hashish, or drink alcohol. They then get caught by the Taliban soldiers and brought back to school and get beaten.
Smartphones were not allowed in school under the previous government. However, the consequences now are more severe due to visits from the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of
There is more focus on learning the Pashto language at our school. One new teacher asked my classmate to write a poem In Pashto, but my classmate was unable to do it. The teacher made him stand on one foot in front of the classroom, slapped him in face several times, and pulled his ears. My classmate felt humiliated.
He added, “Teachers didn’t have the right to humiliate or beat students in the past. In some cases where this would happen, students had the right to complain.”
Harmful Changes in the Curriculum
The Taliban are changing what is taught in both boys’ schools and girls’ primary schools. In early 2022, Human Rights Watch research found that teachers were already beginning to report sweeping changes to the curriculum and plans for additional changes.
Students and parents told Human Rights Watch that there have been significant changes to the curriculum since the Taliban regained power. The absence of female teachers—and the loss of their expertise–has contributed to some subjects not being taught, but the changes go beyond that. Subjects like sports, art, civics, and culture have often been replaced with additional hours dedicated to Quran and Islamic studies. Zahir Y. in Farah province in the southwest said, “I don’t understand the difference between my school and our local mosque anymore. We are lacking professional teachers who taught us important subjects such as physics, computer science, and chemistry.”
Article 29 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Afghanistan ratified in 1994, focuses on the aims of children’s education. The convention does not attempt to prescribe the specific content of education, but the educational process should impart values that reinforce, not undermine, the enjoyment of human rights. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, in a general comment, stated that “the curriculum must be of direct relevance to the child’s social, cultural, environmental and economic context and to his or her present and future needs and take full account of the child’s evolving capacities.” However, the aim of education “includes not only the content of the curriculum but also the educational processes, the pedagogical methods and the environment within which education takes place.”
The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has similarly stated that “the form and substance of education, including curricula and teaching methods, have to be acceptable (e.g. relevant, culturally appropriate and of good quality) to students.”
Two key documents, produced by the Taliban, appear to be the guiding the Taliban’s approach to curriculum change. The first, produced in 2020, focuses on overall changes to the curriculum. The second document, dates April 2023, focuses specifically on Taliban plans regarding girls’ education.
In December 2022, Hasht-e-Subh daily, a media outlet in Afghanistan, reported on the 2020 document, highlighting possible Taliban plans to modify school curriculums. The Taliban’s Education and Higher Education Commission in December 2020 had established a committee to assess the curriculum, which recommended substantial changes. For instance, the committee proposed removing visual arts, civic education, and culture from the curriculum (discussed below). Hasht-e-Subh wrote that teachers had been instructed, pending finalization of a new curriculum, to continue with the old curriculum but to criticize non-Taliban values and concepts found in textbooks and promote the Taliban’s preferred content.
A 78-page document titled “Report of the Modern Curriculum Assessment Committee,” which Human Rights Watch obtained in January 2022, appears to be an internal Taliban proposal for revising the curriculum. While it was not possible to confirm the authenticity of the document and whether its proposals would ultimately be accepted, the changes it suggests are similar to those reported by students and other sources. The document states that:
The current curriculum has been developed under the supervision of the Kabul puppet government’s Education Directorate and its publication was funded by Jewish and non-religious countries. Therefore, it is highly likely that it adheres to un-Islamic and non-Afghan standards that resemble Western standards. However, these superstitions have been cleverly woven into it in such a skillful way that it appears Islamic on the surface, but from a linguistic perspective, the imagery and description reveal ugly intentions that require the skill and analysis of a master [to detect].
In its evaluation, the committee provided a long list of what were said to be problems with the textbooks in use under the previous government. They said that the curriculum:
Presented ethical and moral concerns;
Did not follow Afghan culture and Muslim faith;
Overemphasized Western “infidel” ideology;
Introduced students to and encouraged them to embrace foreign culture;
Presented democracy as a positive value;
Explained human rights using a Western definition and terms;
Promoted Western dress/clothing, i.e., ties and pants;
Mentioned the Zoroastrian religion through poems and stories;
Mentioned non-Muslim poets and scientists and praised them, including examples such as Victor Hugo and Shakespeare;
Mentioned female poets in Dari literature;
Mentioned the celebration of Norouz (Persian new year) and other non-Islamic events.
A few quotes illustrate the tone of the report:
“Many books have presented women’s rights as human rights. The teachers must explain women’s rights through the framework of Islam, not what the West calls women’s rights.”
“[The curriculum is] praising historical sites/monuments and statues like the Bamiyan [Buddha] statue that is not something to take pride in; it is a disgrace and source of shame.”
“Natural disasters are only explained in terms of nature, not in terms of our faith and Allah’s will and power.”
“Women’s right to education is propagated and justified through some Hadith [sayings of the Prophet Mohammed] that suggest women have full right to education and there should not be any conditions or limitations. On this issue, the relevant teachers must clarify what kind of knowledge women can access and under what conditions they must get an education.”
“Equality: This is also one of those terms that enemies of Islam have defined based on their defiant infidel standards: Like all humans are equal, or [there is or should be] equality between men and women.”
In addition to these comments, the assessment committee included the following recommendations regarding the elimination of certain subjects:
Art: Not a required subject; teaching and learning this subject is unnecessary. It can be removed from the curriculum. Instead, agriculture can be added/taught.
Civic education: From grades 7 to 12, harmful subjects exist as a useless result of democracy. The subject is unnecessary.
Culture: It is an unnecessary subject; it will be beneficial to substitute it with a useful subject.
Low Attendance: Impacts of Economic Crises and Low Quality of Education
Students and parents throughout the country told Human Rights Watch that following the Taliban takeover, there was a significant decline in boys’ school attendance. While there is no reliable data available on the numbers, Human Rights Watch’s research suggests that the worsening quality of boys’ education, combined with the economic and humanitarian crises Afghanistan faces, has led to a significant downturn in attendance as students are discouraged from going to school and families struggle to meet basic needs, including affording school supplies, textbooks, and transportation.
They described several factors they believe contributed to declining school attendance by boys. These included the economic and humanitarian crises, displacement of teachers and students, low-quality education, Taliban restrictions, and a lack of motivation and hope for the future.
A person who has no knowledge and expertise is brought to teach us physics and chemistry. This is a crucial year for us, and we cannot prepare for university entrance exams with such illiterate teachers
Sadiq T., grade 11
Sadiq T., a student in grade 11 in Kabul, said many of his classmates no longer came to school and that he had lost his motivation to study. “I have no interest in finishing high school,” he said. “A person who has no knowledge and expertise is brought to teach us physics and chemistry. This is a crucial year for us, and we cannot prepare for university entrance exams with such illiterate teachers.”
The economic and humanitarian crises have affected Afghanistan’s entire population, but marginalized communities and provinces like Daikundi and Bamiyan have been particularly hard hit. These provinces are predominately populated by ethnic Hazara community, who have experienced discrimination in aid distribution. Families and students said that the economic crisis forced many boys between grades 9 and 12 to leave school and risk their lives illegally crossing the border into Iran to find work. Nazar Y., a student in grade 8 from Bamiyan, said that his 16-year-old brother, Jafar, joined a group of 20 boys between 14 and 19 who left school and went to Iran for job opportunities. “There are no jobs here, and families are struggling,” he said. “Boys drop out of school because they have to take on [family] responsibilities.”
Abdul G., 13, in Daikundi province, said, “Since the fall of the republic government, our schools are falling, too. At my school, you can only find three or four boys present at the secondary level.” He added, “The boys are not coming to school because they need to work. No one feels motivated. Public schools are free, but food is not, buses are not, notebooks, textbooks, and our clothing are not free.”
Sharifa A., a single mother of three boys and two girls in Bamiyan province who had worked for the previous government, said that in 2023 she had to send her eldest son, 15-year-old Qadir, to Iran with a group of boys for work. “My heart bleeds for Qadir, but I had no choice, and Qadir knows it. One should provide food so others can continue studying.” Sharifa said that for mothers who previously provided for the family, sending their children illegally to another country would have been unthinkable—but now the situation is a “nightmare.”
“Most boys are panicking about jobs and survival,” said Abdul S., 15, in grade 10 in Bamiyan. “In my school, most boys in grades 10, 11, and 12 have either dropped out of school for work inside the country or crossed the border illegally to Iran or Pakistan for work. If it continues like this, our school will be shut down too.”
He said that: “In the past, we would usually have 38 out of 42 students present in my class. Since the fall of the government, there are typically only 12 to 15 students present. There must be multiple reasons for such low attendance, but the Ministry of Education doesn’t care.”
Taqi B., 14, from Parwan, said, “The Taliban’s Ministry of Education is solely concerned about our appearance, clothing, and phones. They don’t seem to care that more than half of the students are absent in every classroom.”
The Taliban’s Ministry of Education is solely concerned about our appearance, clothing, and phones. They don’t seem to care that more than half of the students are absent in every classroom.
Mental Health Consequences: Anxiety, Distress, and Concern for the Future
The broad-based human rights, economic and humanitarian crises in Afghanistan have had profoundly negative effects on the mental health of many boys, interviewees said. Some boys lost access to education as their families were forced to flee their homes for other locations in Afghanistan or abroad. Many experienced the loss of relatives, friends and teachers. The enforcement of new school uniforms, the Taliban’s restrictive attitudes, instances of corporal punishment and violence, as well as regular and irregular visits from the Ministry of the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, further added to their distress.
The students with whom Human Rights Watch spoke all expressed their lack of hope for the future under Taliban rule.
To the Taliban:
Immediately end the prohibition on girls and women attending secondary school and higher education.
End the ban on women’s employment, and rehire all female teachers and women dismissed from government positions.
Immediately order a ban on all forms of corporal punishment in schools.
Take steps to remove barriers to education for all students, such as the costs of uniforms, school supplies, and textbooks that families cannot afford.
Reverse harmful changes to the curriculum that lower the quality of education and promote discrimination.
To concerned governments and donors:
Press the Taliban to end the prohibition on girls and women attending secondary school and higher education, and the ban on women’s employment.
Offer scholarships and grant visas to students from Afghanistan to pursue education abroad.
To the United Nations:
UNICEF, UNAMA, UN Women and the UN special rapporteur on the right to education should closely monitor the curriculum and education system to promote inclusive and quality education for girls and boys.
UNAMA and the UN special rapporteur on the right to education should report on boys’ rights to education, including having access to including and quality education.
UNAMA and UNICEF should collect and make public reliable data on the education system, including the number, gender and qualifications of teachers, and student attendance and graduation.
UNICEF should help r