New online platform provides free education to girls in Afghanistan

It is accepted around the world that children and young people have a right to education. But for girls in Afghanistan, this is not the case. 

In 2021, the Taliban seized power after launching a military offensive which lasted three and a half months. One of the first measures they imposed was a ban on girls over the age of 12 returning to school. A year later, they extended this ban to include universities, leaving millions of Afghan girls without any access to higher education at all. 

Accessing education was already a struggle prior to the Taliban’s return to power due to the scarcity and inadequacy of learning facilities for girls. It is estimated that 30% of girls in the country have never even entered primary school. Now, in light of the current ban, receiving education beyond this will be close to impossible.

The Begum Academy has been launched in an attempt to combat this.

The Begum Academy is an online platform aimed at female students from seventh to twelfth grade, which offers the entire Afghan curriculum free of charge by subject based on the official school books from the Ministry of Education. The idea behind the initiative is that girls will be able to teach themselves the Afghan school curriculum from their own homes in order to improve their future prospects even if they aren’t allowed to physically attend school.

A spokesperson for the organisation, who preferred not to be named, spoke to Index about the importance of this movement for a country with the lowest ranking for women’s inclusion, justice and security in the world.

“If you take into account Covid and the Taliban in power at the moment, girls have been out of school for basically five years,” he explained.

“The idea is to give them hope. To be a girl in Afghanistan today is hell. There’s absolutely no future. The idea for us is to say okay, you’re forbidden to go to school, you’re not forbidden to learn.”

The platform contains more than 8,000 videos from a team of teachers and producers covering the entire school curriculum in Dari and Pashto, chapter by chapter, which took many months to put together. 

“Recording videos, editing them, working the content. It’s an enormous task,” admitted the Begum Academy correspondent. “Everybody told us that it was crazy, that it was impossible. We decided to go for it.”

The group is also endeavouring to break down other barriers faced by those in Afghanistan who want to learn, such as the lack of internet access in a number of homes across the country. They note that this is an issue they are actively “working on” to try and ensure that as many girls as possible are able to access the resources provided.

This is a sizeable task. Since the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan in 2021, internet connection in the state has been limited. Gallup’s 2022 World Poll found that just 15% of the Afghan population said they have access to the internet. This is potentially due to costs of Wi-Fi or electronics considering more than 90% of the country’s population is affected by poverty.

There is also a significant gender disparity when it comes to internet access, with only 6% of women having access compared to 25% of men. Those living in cities were also more likely to use the internet than those in rural areas. 

Thankfully, the Taliban do not seem to have any plans to ban the internet completely. They even use the internet, which they previously rallied against due to their suspicions of what they deemed to be Western technology, to communicate with the world on social media.

According to a 2023 report by the Atlantic Council, the approximate $77 million in taxes collected by the Afghan government from internet and mobile phone operators since taking over is a crucial source of income. The Taliban have even announced plans to upgrade to 4G networks – a hopeful sign on the internet access front.

However, the Taliban have also been accused of limiting internet access for their own gain, allegedly suspending connectivity in Kabul and other areas on a regular basis in order to curb opposition, as well as blocking millions of websites for “immoral” content. There is therefore a fear that even if internet access is available, the militant group can restrict the content available on it. 

Nonprofit group Access Now, who advocate for digital rights, warns that even those who can access Google in Afghanistan are restricted by the fear of surveillance due to the ability of the Taliban to monitor browser history. Debilitating internet speeds and frequent power cuts may also hinder proceedings.

Despite concerns about the accessibility of the platform in the long-term, the overall feeling regarding the Begum Academy’s launch is positive today.

“We still have a lot of things to do, but I think this project can genuinely help,” the platform’s spokesperson said. “Once the word has spread, and it’s started already on social media, we can expect something quite big.”

You can find the Begum Academy here: 

You can also access online materials on their YouTube channels: (Pashto) (Dari)

Campaigner for Afghan girls’ education takes the path to freedom

Today, Matiullah Wesa walked out of an Afghan prison. The co-founder of Pen Path, an organisation forging routes to education in Afghanistan, has spent the last seven months behind bars. Only recently has his mother been allowed to visit him.

Until 27 March this year, Wesa was riding a motorbike around Afghanistan, a bookcase and computer built into the mobile classroom, to areas where schools do not exist. He read from books to cohorts of girls, locked out of education. And he campaigned for schools to reopen. All of these activities put him in the spotlight.

On his way home from evening prayer seven months ago, Wesa was arrested. Then his house was raided. For much of his imprisonment, Wesa’s family were not allowed to speak with him. Today, his brother and co-founder of Pen Path, Attaullah Wesa, spoke to Index from Toronto about the news. He too is at risk from his work with Pen Path, and arrived in Canada in September.

“I am so happy. I couldn’t sleep last night, I was waking with Matiullah in my dreams. But I don’t know about [the lack] of sleep, I feel very well,” he said.

“I spoke to him when he came out from the jail, just for two minutes — ‘Hi, how are you, how was the jail?’ He told me, ‘No problem,’” Attaullah Wesa said, able to make light of the situation. Some other family members are now with him, and he will now go for health checks. “He looks in good spirit.”

An hour before his brother’s release, Attaullah Wesa had a phone call from his brother, telling him what was about to happen.

Since Matiullah Wesa was released earlier today, his brother’s phone has rung constantly, with messages of congratulations. Former Afghan president Hamid Karzai called him personally to tell him how happy he was. Further calls came from members of parliament around the world, human rights organisations and the press. The international community, he explained, has put a lot of pressure on the Taliban about his brother’s imprisonment.

Pen Path was established in 2009 to create greater access to education, and make sure all children have access to learning and books. Since the Taliban takeover, this job has become more and more difficult, with access to education for women and girls becoming a priority. During the recent earthquakes near Herat, Pen Path have forged on, speaking with people in affected areas about their needs.

This work has continued this year, but without Matiullah Wesa. Just last week, he was announced as the winner of the campaigning category of the Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards. With Wesa behind bars, his brother sent a video message to receive the award, saying that the award was vital in “Letting Matiullah know that he is remembered and won’t be forgotten.”

Baroness Helena Kennedy took to the stage in London to announce Wesa as the winner, echoing the voices of campaigners inside Afghanistan who are calling the current situation a gender apartheid. She said: “It’s very important that we don’t forget Afghanistan.”

With his brother out of prison, Pen Path will continue its work, Attaullah Wesa explains.

“Now we will start in a good spirit, because now the international community knows more about us,” he said. “We will also come with the international community and we will deal some pressure to the Taliban to accept the basic right of girls and women of Afghanistan.”

He ends the call to Index with a message: “For those social activists who are in the prison of the Taliban, they must release them soon.”

Afghans who supported the British government’s mission now face death

The words could not have been starker. “My money is finished. I don’t have food to eat at home. I am exiled to a country worse than Afghanistan. I have no other choice than to sell my kidney.” But these words, which came from an Afghan journalist living in Pakistan, were not unusual. For a growing number of Afghans selling a kidney has, perversely, become an essential way to survive.

Afghanistan has been gutted. At the start of 2022 the UN reported that the country was on the brink of “a humanitarian crisis and economic collapse” and the situation has only worsened. It’s hard to keep track of the increasingly grim reality there, from stories of schoolgirls being poisoned, news of a spiralling mental health crisis, images of people starving and, for that matter, images of people’s post kidney-removal scars.

Among the worst affected are Afghan journalists. The fall of Kabul meant the fall of independent media. An industry that took years to nurture and grow vanished overnight, leaving most without a job and a stable source of income. At the same time the Taliban’s relentless attack on dissent has made these people a primary target. Those who are left behind find themselves faced with both starvation and assassination.

One journalist wrote to me last month. He said he scours the backstreets of Kabul looking for scraps to sell. He sent me pictures of himself before August 2021. He looks relaxed and is wearing a sharp suit and jeans. Some of the images are of him behind a camera. Others show him speaking at a conference for women’s education, something he tells me was one of his proudest moments – championing the rights of girls and women which today are null and void. We communicate on an encrypted messaging app, and even then we delete everything in case his phone falls into the wrong hands. The journalist is trapped, his options limited. He ends the message asking for help.

Those who have escaped are not necessarily faring better, as the man considering selling his kidney attests. The Taliban’s reach spreads to neighbouring countries. Afghan journalists must constantly look over their shoulder, and contend with the added stress of visas, which are not always guaranteed despite the threats they face at home. Threats to be sent back to Afghanistan or imprisoned are commonplace and bribery is rife.

A couple of months ago I was messaging with an Afghan journalist in Pakistan. “It’s more than one year that I’m without job and any income with 6 months baby boy. My economical situation is too bad, I really need to your help and kindness,” she told me. Attached to the message were scans of her press credentials and passport photo, information to help verify that she is in fact who she says she is because in the middle of all this people are being impersonated. Goodwill runs low. The woman made the trip over the border while pregnant. Her baby is unwell. It’s not serious if treated quickly, only she doesn’t have the cash for the surgery. She can’t work on her visa. Besides, she’s looking after a poorly baby. Can I help?

I could list endless conversations like these. Since August 2021 the Index inbox has been flooded with people asking for assistance. Back in September 2021 we set up a messaging group for Afghan journalists. What started off as small today has over 40 people in it. Sometimes positive news is shared – an award won, for example, to a chorus of congratulations. Other times it’s the worst kind of information – news of an Afghan journalist who died in a boat off the coast of Italy and who many in the group knew. Most of the time though it’s information on how people can get funding and get out.

The worst thing is that none of the journalists in the group see the UK as a viable option right now. It’s a ridiculous situation given that in August 2021 then prime minister Boris Johnson announced the creation of the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme (ACRS), with the aim to help resettle 20,000 Afghans in the UK. ACRS was meant to give priority to those who stood up for democracy and specifically mentioned journalists.

Almost two years on and the number of Afghan journalists we’ve helped is negligible. This despite the fact that immigration to our country has increased. Granted we might not feel the threat of proximity or sense of commonality that has driven our policy with Ukrainian refugees. And granted we might not feel the weight of history, as we did when we successfully opened up the BN(O) scheme for those from Hong Kong. But Afghanistan is still part of our story. British troops were involved in Afghanistan from the US-led invasion in 2001 right through to the Taliban takeover. We encouraged the transformation of the country along democratic lines.

The UK government has been called out on its poor record. Last December eight Afghan journalists who worked for the BBC and other British media organisations challenged the government’s refusal to relocate them in a High Court hearing. They said they had “worked alongside and in support of the British government’s mission” in Afghanistan and as a result put their lives at risk. Their lawyer, Adam Straw, said the British government had “betrayed the debt of gratitude” owed to his clients by refusing to relocate them. Since this hearing their visa applications have been reopened – a positive step – only it shouldn’t take a court case to get here.

Index wrote to home secretary Suella Braverman in March to ask about progress on ACRS. Months on and again no response or progress. Meanwhile France has just issued visas to two people in our network. They arrived in Paris this month. It’s a relief to know they are now safe, only these cases should be the norm, not the exception, and the UK should be welcoming such individuals too.

Ultimately we’ve turned our back on Afghan journalists in their darkest hour. There is still time to change course, but we must act – now.

Click here for more information on Index’s upcoming event Those Left Behind: A Night for Afghan Journalists 


Afghan journalist speaks out on the UK’s “shameful silence”

A rallying shout for people to write to their MPs and raise awareness of the plight of women and journalists in Afghanistan, and to pressure the government to improve the current conditions of Afghan refugees in the UK, were part of a panel discussion held by Index on Censorship last Thursday.

A Night For Afghanistan was hosted by Index’s Editor-at-large Martin Bright at Somerville College, University of Oxford. Alongside him were Zahra Joya, an exiled Afghan journalist and founder of Rukhshana Media, and Zehra Zaidi, a lawyer and advocate for Action for Afghanistan.

Joya spoke passionately about the plight of Afghan journalists that remain in her homeland. She said: “Their situation is just terrible. There is no independent journalism left after the Taliban takeover, and journalists that do remain face imprisonment and torture.” Referencing her colleagues left in Afghanistan, including those at Rukshana Media who focus on women’s issues in the country, she added: “I see a very big desire and trust from my colleagues in telling the story of marginalised women both from and in my country.”

Discussing the conditions of Afghan refugees in the UK, Zaidi raised the point of those held in hotels with the audience. She said: “All of them, which is about 11,000 people, have been given three months eviction notices. Without alternative accommodation, they are homeless.

“This isn’t just about the Taliban in Afghanistan. This is now about us, our values. Do we still care about human rights and democracy? We must put pressure on the government to support the process of people coming out of the hotels.”

Joya urged people to raise their voices with politicians; to keep the conversation alive and put pressure on the Taliban from outside the country. Speaking of a “shameful silence” about the Taliban’s actions in her country, she asked the audience to imagine such a scenario closer to home. “It is simply a gender apartheid. Imagine one day half of London being told “Sorry, you have to stay at home from now on””, she said. Joya also told a disturbing story about the father of a friend in Afghanistan who sold his kidney to raise funds for his daughter to escape the regime.

Discussing the role of Index, Bright talked about the UK’s government recent scheme to relocate women and journalists from Afghanistan to the UK, suggesting only a very small handful of people were successful in doing so. He added: “We won’t give up on putting pressure on the British government to fulfil the promises made to the Afghan people, but it makes sense for us to work with other countries’ schemes in helping to get people out.” Zaidi was more forthright to the audience in her views of the British government aims regarding Afghanistan:

“They want to forget. It was a failure for them. The UK got beat, and simply took all of the soldiers and systems with them, and fled”, she said.

“They hope we will simply just go away, but we’re not going anywhere.”