But with the past decade and a half, under democratic rule, the infant mortality rate has been improving dramatically. Ferozuddin Feroz, Afghan minister of public health, said2 one of the difference-makers has been a nation-wide focus on recruiting, training, and deploying thousands of community midwives to rural areas, places with limited access to hospitals of doctors. As of 2002, only 400 such midwives existed. As of 2016, that number was over 5,000.
When girls and women have access to education, they gain more sovereignty over their own reproductive healthcare. This, in turn, has a significant positive impact on the health and longevity of their children – of Afghanistan’s children.
Taliban or poverty: the unspoken problem of the youth bulge in Afghanistan
As NATO troops pulled out of the country and the inflow of foreign money began to shrink, Afghanistan’s economy went into decline – and with it, the job prospects of millions of young people. Afghanistan in 2019 is in the midst of a “youth bulge”–currently, 68% of the country is under the age of 253, and the population is expected to reach 50 million people by 2030. This nation of young people is struggling to access education, and the career opportunities that come with that education often lie just out of reach. As they struggle to find jobs, Afghanistan’s youth population is at risk of being taken advantage of by the Taliban and other extremist groups.
A commonly misunderstood fact is that often, youth do not wish to join the Taliban – they do not do so out of philosophical or religious regions, or because they agree with its radical cultural values. Many times, young Afghans join the Taliban simply because it is the better option to unemployment, or living on the streets. As Al Jazeera describes4, the Taliban often offer twice the monthly salary of the Afghan army, and even pay young men with gold to join their ranks.
As a last-ditch effort to find work, hundreds of thousands of young people are emigrating to other countries – in the first half of 2015 alone, 80,000 Afghans applied for asylum5 in Europe.
As the youth in Afghanistan increase in number, the life-and-death nature of getting an education sharpens in focus and urgency. And sadly, the hopes and dreams, fears and aspirations of Afghan youth often get lost in the oversimplified narratives coming from most TV coverage. Especially in the western world, it is common to hear only of violence, migrants, and religious rule. By telling the stories of individuals and unique communities, Central Asia Institute hopes to share the deep humanity of the Afghan children’s plight. Backed by critical data, these stories also show the impact education has on national stability.
The advantages of education for the country’s children include opportunities to step out of poverty, open businesses, grow the country’s economy, find alternatives to joining extremist groups, and make the country and its population safer and more prosperous overall.
Schools also provide a safe haven for impoverished children. Especially in rural communities, where access to clean water and sanitation is sometimes a luxury not afforded many neighborhoods, attending a school in which clean water, reliable heat, and a safe bathroom are part of the facilities makes a big difference in kids’ quality of life. And when those schools also offer the safety of a protective boundary wall, the hours a child spends in attendance can provide health and safety benefits as well as mental ones.
A thriving country begins with educated children
Worldwide, more than 170 million people could climb out of poverty6, if every child from developing countries learned at least basic reading skills before leaving school. Imagine the exponential increase in benefits if those children also learned a trade, or math skills, or the basics of starting a business. According to UNESCO7, an extra year of school can increase someone’s income by 10%. For girls, that extra year of education also decreases a woman’s chance of becoming a young mother by 7.4%.
The Afghan economy is not keeping pace with its children coming-of-age and entering the labor market. With reports8 of only 49% of males and 18% of females able to read and write, and 35%-40% unemployment rates, the success or failure of the nation’s future rests on the education of its youth.
In more developed countries, the benefits of educating children include improved social skills and attention spans – in Afghanistan, and education can mean the difference between finding a job and being forced by unemployment to join the Taliban. Access to education means girls are healthier, live longer, and are less likely to be forced into early marriage. And building safe schools in rural areas means the forgotten youth of the high mountains and lonely deserts have a way out of poverty, into hope.