The Afghan Ministry of Public Health confirmed what has until now been just a disturbing supposition: the cases of mass sickness at girls’ schools across Afghanistan over the past two years were indeed caused by poison gas. There have been no fatalities, and no one has claimed responsibility for the attacks, but the MPH’s spokesman, Dr. Kargar Norughli, said that his ministry and the World Health Organization (WHO) had been testing the blood from victims of the mass attacks, and discovered toxic compounds.
Because the origin of the attacks is unclear, one reaction has been to dismiss the attacks as random, rather than targeted assaults on girls who are actively seeking an education. But the fact that all of the attacks have been on girls’ schools or mixed schools during hours set aside for girls makes it clear that these are gendered attacks.
The poisonings have happened mostly in areas with large Pashtun populations, where opposition to girls’ education is strong. This opposition manifests itself in various and often violent ways; girls’ schools are burned down, teachers are attacked and beheaded, and acid is sprayed in girls’ faces as they walk to school. These poison gas attacks seem simply to be the latest in a systematic campaign to intimidate girls from attending school.
There is very little doubt among the schools’ teachers and students as to the reasons for the attacks. “There are some people who are always intimidating girls from going to school,” Abida Sadiri, a religion teacher, told the NYT. She was also one of the people who became sick following the acid attacks.
Some students, according to the NYT, stayed home after the attacks, but others ventured out, determined not to let the violence deter them. “School builds our future,” said one fifteen-year-old. “I was worried my family wouldn’t let us come back, but my father said we should. Whatever they do to us, we are going to keep coming.”
Until recently, Afghan girls were completely unable to attend school. There are now more than a million Afghan girls attending schools throughout the country. For the sake of these girls, the Afghan government needs to make their safety a priority – they have the right to access their education without fear.
Photo from DefenseLink.mil.