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Opinion: E-learning can prevent another lost generation in Afghanistan

While Americans celebrate a new year, a tragedy is unfolding thousands of miles away largely of our own making. On Dec. 20, 2022, the Taliban regime in Afghanistan fundamentally silenced Afghan women and girls by prohibiting them from attending universities. This ban comes on top of earlier orders preventing Afghan girls from attending middle and high schools.

Afghanistan is now the only country in the world that bans girls from going to school and universities. The Taliban’s gender apartheid subjects Afghanistan’s women and girls, and eventually all its citizens, to lifelong poverty.

The United States and its partners must stand by Afghan women and girls in their most dire hour of need. The good news is with advances in digital learning and education technology, we can fight the Taliban’s misogyny without dropping a single bomb.

No country bears more responsibility for the future of Afghanistan than America. For 20 years, the U.S. led a global coalition of military forces to defeat the Taliban regime and create a new government, institutions, and infrastructure. These decisions came at a huge cost to the U.S. taxpayer, with Brown University’s Costs of War Project estimating U.S. spending in Afghanistan at $2.26 trillion or more than $300 million a day.

America’s disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 essentially handed the country back to the Taliban, where today, two-thirds of Afghan families struggle to meet basic needs. The foreign aid bubble that artificially propped up the country popped with the U.S. withdrawal, creating the world’s most complex economic, humanitarian, and security crisis.

It has been difficult to deliver lifesaving aid — and this was before the Taliban’s Christmas Eve ban preventing Afghan women from working for local and international NGOs. INGOs including Save the ChildrenNorwegian Refugee Council, and CARE International temporarily suspended their operations in Afghanistan in late December since they cannot reach vulnerable populations without their female staff.

It is unacceptable for any girl anywhere in the world to be denied an education.

The Taliban are writing a new future based on its past, when it denied basic rights and opportunities to women and girls in the 1990s. They cannot be allowed to succeed.

In neighboring Pakistan, which has also struggled with extremist views on gender equality, our work over the past two decades as part of the education research project LEAPS, has shown how powerful education can be — for men and women — and the critical role women play as mothers and teachers in providing high-quality education to the next generation. 

Educated mothers make a big difference. Children with mothers who have received even some education end up with better learning outcomes because they spend over an hour more each day on educational activities at home.

Educated women also increase the supply of quality teaching. In LEAPS’ research, we find public investments in higher education result in twice as many educated women in communities and enable three times as many higher quality private schools to exist, increasing quality and affordable educational choices for parents and students.

These educated women are now also fueling a nonprofit and for-profit tutoring industry that augments schooling by providing affordable and individually tailored education to millions of children, including those left behind during the COVID-19 pandemic. As active entrants in the labor force, these women are increasing family incomes, further stimulating the demand for quality education. 

Education is undeniably the bedrock for any society to thrive. But with the Taliban bent on destroying its country’s future, what can we do?

Technology and innovations in digital and online education provide a starting point.

While women in South Asia often lack mobility and face restrictions in leaving their homes, there is surprisingly more “virtual” mobility for women. With increasing numbers of mobile connections, as well as rising access to internet and smartphones, South Asian women have digital access to the outside world even while they still face a gender digital divide.  For now, societal norms have not been as restrictive in these virtual spaces.

Even in Afghanistan where roughly only a fifth of the population accesses the internet, mobile connections were equivalent to 68.2% of the population in January 2022. With female literacy at only 23% for those ages 15 and above and even male literacy at only just above 50%, education technology can start to reach segments of the population.

With the massive rise of e-learning platforms such as Khan Academy and tutoring services such as BYJU’S in India, there are also no shortages of digital learning materials and willing and able teachers. Immediately after the learning ban was declared, for example, the British online education provider FutureLearn announced that Afghan women could access over 1,200 free courses on its platform. Moreover, research in South Asia has shown how effective and affordable education technology can be in increasing educational access and quality.

Technology by itself is not a panacea. There are many adoption barriers in Afghanistan ranging from political, security, cultural, and poverty access challenges. Any effective solution will have to address issues including providing physical devices and internet access to building trust in and acceptability of online education.

Yet creative partnerships between the private sector and development agencies can leverage existing local networks to deliver devices and provide free bandwidth for educational sites to Afghan households. Accompanying efforts can educate users and build the acceptability of online credentials among employers. Educational material can be adapted to also work on feature phones. And thousands of online volunteers globally can be enabled to contribute to the educational journey of millions of Afghan women and girls from the safety of their homes.

This investment will require effort, but it is feasible and affordable. Education need no longer be contained to physical boundaries but become a global and accessible service that cannot be repressed — even by the Taliban.

It is unacceptable for any girl anywhere in the world to be denied an education. As we make our resolutions for 2023, let us collectively commit to preventing another lost generation in Afghanistan.

Source : Devex