The walls of the Malalay school, in the centre of Lashkar Gah, Helmand, are pockmarked with bullets from the last weeks of bitter fighting between the Taliban and government forces, the glass in its windows shattered by a blast.
Its teachers have not been paid for two months and several say they were bombed out of their homes in the final battles, but they are staggering on, somehow, for their students, most of them girls.
“My home has been destroyed by a bombing, even my shoes have been ripped to pieces, but I am still willing to come here and work,” said one geography teacher, Arezoo Sayedi, who shared photos of fragments from the shell that ripped apart her home weeks earlier. “We are all crowded into just one room, to try and avoid the mosquitoes.”
They are missing almost half their students and unclear about the future of their jobs. The Taliban have brought in a de facto ban on education for teenage girls. Boys in grades 7 to 12 have been back at school for nearly two weeks, while girls have been ordered to stay at home.
Those girls make up 1,600 of the Malalay school’s 3,600 female students, and it is unclear if they will ever be allowed back, or what will happen to the jobs of the women employed to teach them. The school also educates 600 boys in segregated classes in grades 1 to 3.
Teachers who are mothers of teenage girls say they will leave Afghanistan unless their daughters are allowed to study, even though they want to stay in their homes and jobs. “My daughter is in 8th grade and she is still at home,” said one teacher, whose family fled Afghanistan the first time the Taliban came to power, a generation ago, allowing her to get an education. “If schools don’t restart here, our family is ready to go and be refugees again.”
The Taliban have asked women – many of them educated abroad last time the group were in power – to return to work in the healthcare and education sectors, while blocking the training of a new generation. The irony is not lost on Afghan women.
“A society without women is not a society. We need educated women to become professionals. Women need female doctors, they shouldn’t have to go and see a man when they are sick,” said the Malalay schoolteacher who plans to leave if her daughter cannot study. She asked not to be named.
There has been no official statement about plans for women’s education, although several Taliban officials have said that girls secondary education will resume soon. But without any details of why girls are still at home, many Afghan women who lived through the Taliban’s rule in the 1990s are sceptical.
Then the group claimed to recognise women’s right to an education under Islam, but said security was not good enough for girls to attend school. That near total ban lasted throughout the five years they were in power, though some girls were educated in underground schools, or went to primary classes dressed as boys.
The trend was repeated in parts of Helmand that the Taliban controlled before they seized the rest of Afghanistan this August, leading to fears they would ban girls’ education nationwide.
However, in Lashkar Gah, Abdullah Spilanay, a school principal, said that the Taliban had and told him to restart classes for younger students, although they had not provided any money for the school or its teachers.
“The Taliban contacted us, and said there is no problem with women teaching girls, the teachers can carry on working,” said Spilanay, who has been at the school for two decades and is the only male teacher working there. “It was a surprising day. They came here and met with 40 teachers, called us brothers and sisters, and what worries we had in our hearts [about being able to continue work] have been dispelled.”
The joyful chatter of young girls heading to and from class filters into the staffroom where we talk.
This reassurance has not been converted into the funds the school needs, however. “Economically there is no reason for them to keep teaching,” Spilanay said of the staff, who have not been paid for two months.
They are mostly still showing up, nonetheless, although there are some gaps. A mother who had come to collect a sixth grader said her daughter was back at school but was not being taught. “We’ve been coming here for three days because we were told classes have restarted, but no one can tell her where the teachers are.”
Some teachers are trying to patch up their homes, damaged in the intense fighting; others are having to look for ways to support themselves after so long without a salary. They want the international community, which has heavily subsidised education in Afghanistan, to start cash flowing again.
“I’m very happy seeing our students back, but it is difficult without a salary,” said Seema. “For this country and the Afghan people, the foreigners should give [funds] for that.”
While the ban on secondary education continues, those in charge of international funding face painful decisions. There is no appetite to pay for an system that excludes girls from high school, but unless schools such as Malalay get money, they may struggle to keep their doors open for younger students.
Education for women has always been an uphill struggle in Helmand, especially at secondary level, even though the UK has built 90 schools and spent tens of millions of pounds on girls’ education nationwide.
Two years ago, officials admitted that outside Lashkar Gah and the neighbouring Gereshk district not a single girl had graduated from high school. Overall, just 4,000 girls had completed high school in Helmand in the two decades to 2019, the province’s education department said.
Obstacles to girls’ education included insecurity, Taliban opposition, poverty, child marriage and a shortage of female teachers and of schools.
The years of war have been damaging in Lashkar Gah, and devastating in rural areas. In the city, Taliban threats against girls education and militant attacks on female students in other parts of the country cast a long shadow. In the countryside, well-built school compounds were often co-opted as military bases, teachers were hard to find or keep, and fighting meant parents were reluctant to allow their children to attend those schools that somehow remained open.
For some teachers in Malalay, the relative calm the Taliban has brought means now is the time to try to expand education and recover from that troubled legacy. “There are no security issues now. We lost too many people like teachers – one bullet, one bomb blast and 20, 40 years of education and experience are gone,” said one teacher, who did not want to give her name.
“If they offered us all of America, I wouldn’t go. We should join together and help this country, help Lashkar Gah. We are secure here now, so we should build.”