Reducing school dropout rates among Afghan Girls

In a new series of policy briefs, our YLFees discuss current political challenges and recommendations

Girls drop out of school in a country like Afghanistan. Most children live in low-income families, face security and social challenges, and have limited access to education. As many girls are often out of school, this is a severe problem. To address this issue, it is crucial that completing school should be mandatory, that the government develops policies to improve girls' educational opportunities, and approaches to delay marriage and childbearing. The latter primarily should be strictly enforced.

Beyond improving education opportunities and delaying marriage and childbearing, more investments should be allocated in the education sector to enhance education quality, increase learning facilities (such as laboratories and libraries), and improve learning toolkits. New schools should be built in rural communities to avoid long walks and decrease transportation costs for families. Finally, awareness-raising programs should be developed for families on the importance of their children's education and bright futures. 

Globally, nine in ten girls complete their primary education but only three in four complete their lower secondary education. In low-income countries, less than two-thirds of girls complete their primary education and only one in three ends lower secondary school. The same issue afflicts Afghanistan. After sixteen years, 9.5 million children are now going to school, 39% are girls. Yet 4 million children are not going to school, which 60% of those are girls. Therefore, literacy among girls is 44% lower than that of boys. Out of 39 % of girls going to school, not all can complete their secondary and high school for various reasons.

A report by the Women and Children Legal Research Foundation (WCLRF), an Afghan based institution working on women and children’s right, shows that 62% of Afghan girls between 13 and 15 years of age leave school due to poverty, forced marriage, childbearing, traditional norms, and insecurity issues. Also, of the 12,000 female students studying in seventh-grade, only 6,000 of them later graduated from their schools— a much higher dropout rate than for boys. Research has shown that male members of the home decided in 64% of the cases that girls should not attend school, and 36% were forced to leave for other reasons such as war (48%), traditional norms, poverty, and displacement.

Causes behind why girls drop out

The WCLRF research showed that most of the 15 years old girls in seventh and ninth grade classes drop out of school before they complete their secondary education and high school. Girls drop out due to the cost of schooling, early marriages and pregnancies, a lack of learning while in school, social norms, war, a lack of interest, gender roles, and domestic violence. The word “High School” here means completing the 12th grade and receiving the 12th grade certificate. 

Low Education Quality: Urban and primarilyrural government schools are so low in quality and resources. Many children graduate from primary school without learning to read. A recent study shows that most school graduates perform poorly in essential subjects such as language, communication, mathematics, etc. Such conditions require the Ministry of Education (MoE) to prioritize the quality of education thoroughly. All schools in rural or urban areas are currently weak in delivering quality education, even in the capital. The majority of schools do not have labs, libraries, computer labs, and other facilities. Theoretical learning predominates without practice opportunities. Poor learning outcomes discourage some students and their parents. Since this is crucial, the MoE has to figure out Afghanistan's position in terms of educational level compared to other developing and developed countries. Many countries around the world are members of the International Assessment Associations. However, the MoE has been unintentionally isolated from international assessments and quality assurance participation. Afghanistan's secondary education needs to be involved in at least one of the international assessment associations for promoting education in schools. The MoE leadership and practitioners should activate the newly established National Assessment Center for measuring students' level of education. Through the Active National Assessment Center, students' specific skills and their performances and future role in society will be evaluated periodically to assess their talents, gaps, intellectual development abilities, special needs, and individual differences in learning styles. The General Directorate of Curriculum Development and Compiling of Textbooks is required to conduct national curriculum assessments across the country and make plans for assessing essential instructional, collective, and individual needs that will improve overall quality.

Poverty and Economic Challenges: In Afghanistan, the poverty rate is around 71%. This rate is a significant barrier, asresearch shows that poverty and economic challenges caused 31% of girls to leave their schools. At the same time, most affected families expressed that they could not afford the cost and expenses of their child's education (such as uniforms, books, notebooks, and other stationaries, lunch, and transportation). When it comes to cutting costs, girls are more affected by such cost-cutting than boys. Families also provide more opportunities to their boys than their girls.

Lack of Nearby Secondary school: In rural areas, there are not good schools, and if there is a school, it is too far from local villages. These transportation costs also expose girls to insecure situations while in transit between school and the home. In most provinces, children need to go far from their village to another village or even another district for school. More funding is required to build new schools closes to their residencies. The word “School” here refers to: primary, lower secondary and higher secondary education

Lack of Women Teachers: Only a third of Afghanistan's teachers are women. This is not enough to cover all female students (especially in rural areas). There is also a decrease of educated female teachers, specifically due to low salary and financial benefits, lack of interest, security issues, and lack of opportunities for learning and career development. In a survey, 70% of women respondents said they don't choose teaching as a profession due to its low income, which does not cover living costs. Security challenges also make it difficult for women to teach in rural areas. However, conservative Afghan culture considers that it is inappropriate for male teachers to teach girls. As a result, families do not allow their girls to go to schools where their teachers are male. Therefore, the government must develop empowerment programs to support female teachers and to encourage women to choose teaching as their profession.

Early Marriage and Child Bearing: Most girls are victims of forced marriage in Afghanistan. It is one of the main challenges to girls' education. Once a girl is married, she is likely to be expelled from school because of pregnancy, house chores, and other responsibilities. It is difficult for a pregnant woman to attend school, and some families do not allow a pregnant woman to attend school. Also, husbands tend to show little interest in supporting their wives' education because some men in Afghanistan think that education is not for a married woman. Instead, they believe wives should pay attention to house chores and take care of children and family members. Husbands usually do not want to spend their money on their wives' education and might even force them to leave school. Early childbearing is another challenge. After a marriage, girls are forced to have kids at a very young age, and having a child denies them the ability to attend school. Early Marriage here refers to: (marrying before age 18), and early child bearing: (having a first child before the age 18)

Family responsibilities: Being the first daughter lessens a girl's chances of going to school as they are expected to help their mother at home during the day. When a mother dies, the first daughter is expected to take on all of the mother's household responsibilities. Here “Family” means all her family members including her father, brother, sister, grandfather and grandmother.

Social and Economic Effects

Dropping out of school can have adverse effects on families, girls, and society. The negative impacts of not educating girls are substantial and wide-ranging in their economic development and social mobility. Women's empowerment in leadership and decision-making processes suffers. Evidence shows that in families where women are educated and generate income, happiness levels are higher, the family is healthier, and the family has better economic status than if not. A World Bank report estimates that the losses in lifetime productivity and earnings for girls who do not complete 12 years of education total between $15 trillion and $30 trillion globally. This rate is because women with secondary education earn twice as much as those with no education, while primary education gains are much smaller. The total Afghan population in 2020-21 is estimated at 32.9 million, of which 16.1 million (49 %) are female. Out of that 49%, only 10 per cent are educated, and most of them can only read but nothing more advanced.


We need to understand the constraints faced by adolescent girls when thinking about what can be done to improve educational opportunities for girls. Improving learning is a priority for Afghanistan. Therefore, Afghanistan's government should identify bottlenecks in schools that impede the delivery of high-quality education, maintain good classroom facilities, decrease schooling costs, and prevent forced marriages and other forms of harassment against girls that cause dropouts.

Compulsory education is essential to reduce the school dropout rate. Compulsory education ensures that all children are provided with an equal opportunity to education. It prepares a child intelligibly for mature adult life, increases the literacy rate, and provides a skilful and qualified workforce (necessary for economic growth within a country and helps individuals become self-sufficient). For example, in Pakistan, children of the age group 5 to 16 years receive compulsory education with good results. The education sector needs more investments, especially for increasing teachers' salaries, to keenly invest their time improving the country's education level. Investing in the education sector will be critical to ensure a better future for girls and enable them to complete their high school and make more informed decisions. They will also have more opportunities for higher education. Besides this, nearby community schools are also vital to avoid long walks and transportation costs.

Finally, to reduce girls' dropout rates, awareness-raising programs are needed for positive cultural change, increasing education importance, and fighting against undesirable cultural norms.


The points below explain some necessary actions and activities that, in cooperation with the Ministry of Education and other relevant actors, should take place to prevent girls from dropping out:  

  • Completing high school should be compulsory for all students. Being obliged to attend primary and secondary school gives the student a chance to make mature and sensible choices regarding their future, and it is the main component in the structure of adult life. The Afghan government has not taken meaningful steps toward implementing national legislation that makes education compulsory. The 2008 Education Law mandates nine years of mandatory education, which only covers primary education. This law was not well enforced, as it should also cover the lower secondary and higher secondary education.
  • Eliminate child marriage (marrying before age 18) and reduce substantially early childbearing (having a first child before 18). Here, education interventions tend to be the most successful. Laws and regulations should be enforced correctly.
  • Policies for girls to improve learning and make it worthwhile for girls and their families to invest in education and improve education opportunities. In coordination with the private sector, civil society, and advocacy actors, the government should develop programs to provide women with economic opportunities to help make investments in education more attractive to girls and their families.
  • More investments should be allocated in the education sector to increase the quality of the education system. The state should conduct capacity-building programs for training veterans, aged, academics, and professional instructors to foster practical professional skills, increase the number of women teachers, and increase the salary of teachers and staff (which directly affects the quality of students' education).
  • MoE leadership should cover the cost of study materials, especially books and uniforms for students, to decrease families' financial pressure and provide rich educational environments such as libraries, laboratories, and tool kits (for all subjects).
  • In provinces and districts, the state should build new schools close to communities because of a shortage of schools, and insufficient transportation are the main obstacles to education. A long walk to school means fewer children go. Hence, girls face different types of harassment on the streets like street harassment, kidnaping, sometimes even rape. As a result, families and girls themselves are afraid to attend school.
  • Awareness-raising programs should be developed for families regarding the importance of their child's education, gender equality, and the multiple benefits and impacts of having an educated woman within the family. Specifically, healthcare, nutrition, and efficient housing matters should be discussed with them. More importantly, families should be aware of the need to provide equal opportunities for their boys and girls and pay equal attention to the education of both.

Angela Ahmadi is a member of the 2020/21 Young Leaders Forum.

This article has also been published in Dari by Afghanistan Today. The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and not necessarily those of Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.


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