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Students attend a class at a primary school in Afghanistan's Nangarhar province on Sept. 18.SHAFIULLAH KAKAR/AFP/Getty Images

Mujtaba Haris is a freelance journalist and a former journalism fellow at Massey College.

As the academic year picks up steam, the streets are filled with students heading to schools and universities. On my own journey to university each morning, I pass through Union Station, which is packed with students rushing to get on the crowded subway. The students chat excitedly about their experiences at university – a stark contrast from the difficult situation girls and women are facing in my home country of Afghanistan.

In the past two years, the Taliban have set into motion a vicious campaign to marginalize women and girls and erase them from public life. Girls and women are banned from secondary schools and universities.

Before the Taliban’s dark shadow descended, Afghanistan had seen a remarkable surge in female education. Over two decades, the female literacy rate nearly doubled, soaring from 17 per cent in 2011 to 30 per cent in 2018. The number of girls in primary school increased from almost zero to 2.5 million, and the number of young women in higher education increased from around 5,000 to 90,000 between 2001 and 2018. During that time, 124 new private universities were established.

Despite years of success, with a single decision, the Taliban have crushed the dreams of a generation of women. This isn’t just a step back for gender equality; it’s a leap into the abyss. Imagine a world where your dreams are snuffed out just because you’re born a girl. That’s the harsh reality for Afghan girls who had their aspirations brutally crushed. Schools aren’t just centres of education; they’re sanctuaries of dreams, hope, and ambition.

As a journalist and education activist, I have received several messages from Afghan girls I have featured in my stories, asking for help to resume their educations and to exercise their fundamental human rights. Despite facing repression by the Taliban regime, these brave souls continue to fight for their right to education. Their spirit remains unbroken; their resolve unshaken. They are the true heroes of Afghanistan, reminding us all that no matter how difficult the circumstances, we should never give up on our dreams and rights. These heroes need support beyond statements, speeches, and simple humanitarian assistance – they need investment, essential services, and a spotlight on the grave injustices in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime.

Western governments and international bodies must utilize their collective influence to safeguard the fundamental human rights of girls and women in Afghanistan. Canada is widely recognized for its unwavering commitment to democratic values, gender equality, and human rights. In light of the current situation in Afghanistan, Canada must echo the courageous spirit of Afghan women and girls, amplify their voices, and use its international influence to advocate for their undeniable right to learn.

That means delivering financial aid to organizations like UNICEF, the Malala Fund, Learn Afghanistan, and Rumi Academy to provide resources and support to improve Afghan girls’ access to education while schools remain closed. These organizations can continue to explore alternative education opportunities via TV and radio broadcasts, community learning centres, and online learning programs with offline learning options, such as downloadable course materials. They can provide free or subsidized internet access and expand initiatives like the University of the People, which recently offered 1,000 scholarships to women in Afghanistan to pursue a bachelor’s degree for free online, receiving over 15,000 applications from Afghan girls and women. Similar initiatives, such as the Connected Learning in Crisis Consortium, have facilitated collaborations between universities and humanitarian organizations to deliver online education in conflict zones and refugee camps.

Canadian universities should collaborate with private universities and institutions in Afghanistan to develop distance education programs that utilize technology to deliver educational content to Afghan women and girls. Additionally, they should offer special tuition waivers, scholarships, and bursaries for living expenses, transfer course credits or partial degrees from Afghanistan, and reserve placements for Afghan women and girls. This would not only further their education but also provide a platform for their voices to be heard globally.

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