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Submission to the Committee on the Rights of the Child’s Review of Afghanistan

20 May 2020 Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch presents this shadow report in advance of the 85th session of the Committee on the Rights of the Child to assess Afghanistan’s implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

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1.     Armed Conflict (article 6)

Children have accounted for roughly 30 percent of the estimated 10,000 civilian casualties that have taken place each year since 2016.[1] In the first quarter of 2020, more than 500 civilians, including more than 150 children, were killed due to the conflict.

For example, on May 12, 2020, unidentified assailants attacked a hospital in Kabul. The suicide bombing attack and ensuing gunbattles killed at least 24 civilians, including 2 infants, and wounded at least 16. More than 80 patients, including children, were evacuated from the hospital.[2]

Anti-Government Elements (AGEs) continued to be responsible for the majority of civilian casualties – accounting for 55 percent of them. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) attributed 39 percent to the Taliban, 13 percent to Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant–Khorasan Province (ISIL-KP) and the remainder to undetermined AGEs. Pro-Government Forces (PGFs) were responsible for 32 percent of all civilian casualties during the first quarter of 2020. PGFs were responsible for more child casualties than AGEs during the first three months of the year and over twice as many child deaths, mainly due to airstrikes and indirect fire during ground engagements.[3]

We encourage the Committee to recommend to the government of Afghanistan to:

  • Investigate military operations that result in civilian casualties to provide an effective feedback mechanism to reduce civilian casualties in the future.
  • Hold the perpetrators of attacks on civilians and violations of international humanitarian law accountable.
  • Provide timely and appropriate compensation to civilians harmed in unlawful attacks.

2.    Access to Education (articles 28 and 29)

An estimated 3.7 million children were already out of school in Afghanistan prior to the Covid-19 pandemic.[4] The socio-political and humanitarian crises that Afghanistan faces due to the pandemic critically affects an already very fragile education system. The ongoing armed conflict and its impact, including attacks on education, military use of schools, and fears about children’s safety, already kept many children out of school. Deep poverty, lack of schools, and lack of transportation to school put education out of reach for many families. In areas controlled or influenced by AGEs, education, especially for girls, may be banned or severely limited.

Girls’ Education

Girls’ education is often highlighted as a success story by donors and the Afghan government, and millions more girls are in school today than were in school under Taliban rule. But the aim of getting all girls into school is far from realized, and the overall number of students and the proportion of students who are girls is now falling in parts of the country. Of the children that were out of school prior to Covid-19 related school closures, 85 percent were girls. Only 37 percent of adolescent girls are literate, compared to 66 percent of adolescent boys.4F[5]

Afghanistan’s government provides many fewer schools for girls than boys at both the primary and secondary levels. In half the country’s provinces, fewer than 20 percent of teachers are female–a major barrier for girls whose families will not allow them to be taught by a man, especially as adolescents.5F[6] Many children live too far from a school to attend, which particularly affects girls who are more likely to fear for their safety on long walks. About 41 percent of schools have no physical buildings, and many lack boundary walls, water, and toilets—also disproportionately affecting girls.6F[7]

Under Afghan law, education is compulsory through class nine, but in reality many children have no access to education to this level—or sometimes, to any level. Administrative barriers and corruption create additional obstacles, especially for displaced and poor families. Even when tuition is free, there are costs for sending children to school and many families cannot afford to send their children or are forced to choose which children to educate, a choice that often favors sons.7F[8] About a quarter of Afghan children work to help their families survive desperate poverty. Many girls weave, embroider, beg, or pick garbage rather than study.8F[9]

International technical and financial support

Afghan government and international donor efforts since 2001 to improve education have significantly faltered in recent years. As security in the country worsens and international donors disengage from Afghanistan, progress has stalled. The Covid-19 crisis is likely to hasten this disengagement.

Donors focussing on girls’ education specifically have worked with the Afghan government, and with the Taliban, to develop innovative models to allow girls to study during conflict, including “community-based education” (CBE), a network of classes, often held in homes, that allow children, particularly girls, to obtain an education in communities far from a government school. But because these classes are funded solely by donors and implemented by nongovernmental organizations, they have no consistent connection with the government school system and come and go due to unreliable funding cycles.

According to UNESCO, governments should spend at least 15 to 20 percent of their public expenditure, and 4 to 6 percent of GDP, on education. Least developed countries should reach or exceed the higher of these benchmarks. In 2016, Afghanistan spent 13 percent of its public expenditure, and 4 percent of GDP, on education.9F[10]

The effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on donor funding are just beginning to emerge. But Afghanistan is deeply aid dependent,[11] with aid constituting an estimated 40 percent of GDP in 2018. In March 2020, the US threatened to cut aid to Afghanistan by $1 billion, reportedly due to the failure of President Ashraf Ghani and his main political rival, Abdullah Abdullah, to agree on a unity government.[12]

We encourage the Committee to pose the following questions to the government:

  • What is the government’s current expenditure on education as a percentage of the total national budget and GDP?
  • What specific measures is the government taking to correct the imbalance between the number of schools for girls versus for boys?
  • What specific measures is the government adopting to make progress on recruiting and retaining female teachers?
  • How is the government ensuring the sustainability of CBE classes?

We encourage the Committee to recommend to the government to:

  • Increase spending on education to meet international best practices and the government’s international obligations to provide universal free and compulsory primary education and help make secondary education free and available to all.
  • Provide an equal number of schools and school places for girls and boys and ensure that conditions in single-gender schools are equal in terms of adequacy of facilities, staffing, and supplies.
  • Increase girls’ access to education by institutionalizing and expanding CBE and other education models that help girls study.
  • Work toward having half female teachers across the country.
  • Ensure that all girls’ schools are staffed by female teachers.
  • Ensure that any “back to school” campaigns and remedial programming following the Covid-19 pandemic is inclusive to also attract children who were out of school before the pandemic.

3.    Protection of Education During Armed Conflict (articles 28 and 29)

School districts across Afghanistan find themselves on the front lines of the country’s armed conflict. In areas under Taliban control, access to education is limited. In areas where the government and insurgents are fighting for control, students face heightened security threats including sexual harassment, kidnapping, and acid attacks, as well as targeted attacks and threats.

Afghan government security forces and the Taliban also use schools for military purposes. In 2016, Human Rights Watch documented the military use of several schools in Baghlan.[13] In February 2016, the Afghan army conducted a clearance operation near the Qalai Khwaja High School in Dand-e Ghori. During the operation, the military carried out a controlled detonation of an improvised explosive device that the retreating Taliban had placed near the school, and the explosion rendered six of the classrooms unusable. An army contingent remained stationed in the school following the clearance operation until March when the Taliban recaptured the area.

In April 2016, the Khial Jan Shahid Primary School, located in Omarkhail village in Dand-e Shahabuddin, which enrolled about 350 boys and girls as of April 2016, was occupied by the Taliban. They used the school as a base for about five months. During a military operation in early 2016, government forces attacked Taliban fighters based at the primary school, shelling the building with mortars and raking it with gunfire. The military forced the Taliban fighters to abandon the school, but the intense battle left the school compound almost completely destroyed.11F[14]

Attacks on schools continue. In 2019, UNAMA verified 70 incidents impacting access to education, including attacks targeting or incidentally damaging schools; the killing, injury and abduction of education personnel; and threats against education facilities and personnel.[15]

UNAMA documented damage to 24 schools as a result of Taliban operations in the first six months of 2019. For example, on April 14, Taliban detonated explosives that caused substantial damage to a high school, hampering education for about 1,000 students.12F[16] Further, on July 1, 2019, two Taliban attackers wearing civilian clothes and armed with AK-47s set up a firing position on the upper floor of a building which had a private school on the ground floor where around 300 students were at their classes. During the operation, one boy and six civilian men were killed and 144 civilians were injured (21 boys, 7 girls, 101 men and 15 women), along with the four attackers.[17]

Afghanistan was among the first countries to endorse the Safe Schools Declaration, joining in May 2015. By endorsing the declaration, Afghanistan committed itself to a number of measures aimed at strengthening the prevention of, and response to, attacks on students, teachers, and schools, including by: collecting reliable data on attacks and military use of schools and universities, providing assistance to victims of attacks, investigating allegations of violations of national and international law and prosecuting perpetrators when appropriate, developing and promoting “conflict sensitive” approaches to education, and seeking to continue education during armed conflict. It also committed to using the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict.

In April 2016, the education minister wrote to both the Ministry of Interior Affairs and the National Security Council requesting assistance in vacating schools being used for military purposes.13F[18] In 2018, the Afghan government stated that their “National Policy on Prevention and Mitigation of Civilian Harm,” provides specific guidelines to be undertaken by security forces that “strictly prohibits … the utilization of civilian facilities, including schools, hospitals, and clinics, for military purposes.”14F[19]

We encourage the Committee to pose the following questions to the government:

  • Can the government share with the Committee a copy of the provisions in the National Policy on Prevention and Mitigation of Civilian Harm strictly prohibiting the use of schools for military purposes?
  • Are protections for schools from military use included in any other policies, rules, or trainings for Afghanistan’s armed forces?
  • How many schools were either partially or wholly used for military purposes by government security forces during the reporting period, and for what time?

We encourage the Committee to recommend to the government to:

  • Congratulate the government of Afghanistan on endorsing the Safe Schools Declaration, and thereby committing to use the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use in Armed Conflict.
  • Issue clear and public orders to all security forces to refrain from the military use of schools in line with the Safe Schools Declaration and using the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict as a minimum standard.
  • Issue clear and public instructions to national and provincial authorities to monitor and report any use of schools by Afghan security forces.
  • Ensure that students deprived of educational facilities as a result of hostilities, the military use of their school, or the need for their school to be repaired or reconstructed, are promptly provided access to nearby alternative schools.
  • Ensure that theministries of interior and education are collecting data on military use of schools by both Afghan security forces and non-state armed groups. Data should include the names and locations of the school being used; the purpose for which they are being used; the duration of the use; the specific security force unit or armed group making use of the school; the enrollment prior to use and attendance during use; impact on students unable to attend school; actions taken by the authorities to end military use of the school; and the damages sustained during the military use of the school.
  • Ensure the ministries of defense and interior establish and implement preventive measures, including advance planning and the provision of necessary logistics and equipment, through coordination with the security forces and the education ministry to avoid the military use of schools, and to vacate them expeditiously where armed forces are using them.
  • Investigate and appropriately prosecute those individuals responsible for attacks on schools or damaging schools in violation of international law.
  • Continue to develop and share examples of its implementation of the declaration’s commitments—including concrete measures to deter the military use of schools—with this Committee and other countries that have endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration.

4.    Lack of Adequate Mental Health Support (article 24)

The Afghan government is failing to provide sufficient psychosocial, or mental health, support to Afghans who have experienced traumatic events, including children.

Forty-one years of war have had a devastating impact on the mental health of millions of Afghans. With large parts of the country facing armed conflict, a weak health system, and a lack of professional health and social workers, mental health services are largely failing to meet the population’s needs.

In 2019, the government spent only US$7 per capita on health services annually, far below the $30 to $40 that the United Nations Commission on Macroeconomics and Health considered appropriate in 2001. The Public Health Ministry says only about 26 cents of that is spent on mental health. While the mental health budget has increased since 2006, it remains below the $3 to $4 per capita the World Health Organization (WHO) has determined is an appropriate investment for mental health systems in low-income countries such as Afghanistan.[20]

We encourage the Committee to pose the following questions to the government:

  • What concrete steps are being taken to provide proactive and timely psychosocial support to survivors of traumatic events, particularly children?
  • What plans does the government have to raise awareness amongst children about existing psychosocial services?
  • Are there plans to train teachers to provide basic psychosocial support to their students?

We encourage the Committee to recommend to the government to:

  • Expand and promote mental health services and psychosocial support for people who have experienced traumatic events related to the conflict.
  • Instruct health workers to provide referrals to mental health services, with special attention to women and children.
  • Consider less expensive ways to provide basic services, such as remote counselling through mobile phones, focusing intervention on specific communities, self-help training, and peer support groups, as well as incentives to increase the number of counsellors in rural areas.  

5.    Child Marriage (articles 2, 6, 19, 24, 28, 34)

In Afghanistan, a third of girls marry before the age of 18.16F[21] Under Afghan law, the minimum age of marriage for girls is 16, or 15 with the permission of the girl’s father or a judge. The minimum age for boys is 18. In practice, the law is rarely enforced, so even earlier marriages occur. The consequences of child marriage are deeply harmful, and include children dropping out or being excluded from education. Other harms include serious health risks—including death—to girls and their babies due to early pregnancy. Girls who marry are also more likely to be victims of domestic violence than women who marry later.17F[22]

In April 2017, the Afghan government launched a national plan to end child marriage.19F[23] But there has been little progress in implementing the plan. Given the government’s poor track record of implementing laws and policies designed to protect the rights of women and girls, there is reason for scepticism about the likely impact of these efforts.20F[24]

We encourage the Committee to pose the following questions to the government:

  • What is being done about the slow progress to end child marriage across the country?
  • Does Afghanistan have plans to change the legal age of marriage to 18 with no exceptions for women and men, in compliance with its obligations under international human rights law?

We encourage the Committee to recommend to the Government to:

  • Reform the law to set the minimum age of marriage at 18 with no exceptions.
  • Fully implement the National Action Plan to end child marriage.
  • Strengthen the role of the province-level Child Protection Action Networks (CPANs). Ensure that educators, communities and local government officials work with the local CPAN to protect the most vulnerable children, children at risk of child marriage and provide them with access to child protection services.

6.   Sexual Abuse of Children (articles 19 and 34)

In November 2019, an Afghan advocacy group disclosed evidence that government officials in Logar province, had sexually assaulted more than 500 boys at state schools.[25] In response to a report on their findings, the activists received threats on Facebook, some from local officials. A spokesman for the Logar police threatened to punish the activists. The National Directorate of Security (NDS), Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, detained two activists who had reported the abuse. The NDS later released a video in which one of the men, clearly under duress, apologized for the report. The activists were released and subsequently left Afghanistan.

While the Afghan Attorney General’s Office has initiated an investigation into the Logar allegations and 18 people have been arrested, no police or senior officials alleged to have been responsible for abuse were included in the arrests. Activists have told Human Rights Watch that provincial officials are seeking to terminate the investigation, regardless of whether it has made progress. A number of diplomatic missions in Kabul have raised concerns about political pressure to cut short the investigation. Afghan authorities have not put into place any measures to protect survivors and witnesses from retaliation.[26]

We encourage the Committee to pose the following questions to the government:

  • During the reporting period, how many individuals have been prosecuted for sexual abuse of children, and how many individuals have been convicted?
  • What protections from potential retaliation are available for survivors and witnesses who participate in investigations and prosecutions?

We encourage the Committee to recommend to the government to:

  • Fully investigate and appropriately prosecute all claims of sexual abuse against children, no matter whether the alleged perpetrator is a government official.
  • Protect and provide psycho-social support to all child victims who bring claims regrading sexual abuse.
  • Ensure all members of the armed forces and police receive instructions on their responsibilities towards children as part of their training.

[1] “Reports on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict,” UNAMA,

[2] Human Rights Watch, “Afghanistan: Attack on Hospital a War Crime: Assault on Kabul Maternity Clinic Shows Cruel Disregard for Civilians,” May 12, 2020,

[3]  “Afghanistan: Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict First Quarter Report: 1 January – 31 March 2020,” UNAMA, April 27, 2020,

[4] ‘Education – Afghanistan’, UNICEF, (Accessed April 13, 2020)

[5] United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and European Commission, “Afghanistan Gender Country Profile—final report: short version,” September 21, 2016, p. 9, on file with Human Rights Watch.

[6] “Afghanistan Statistical Yearbook: 2016-2017,” 2017, pp. 106-7.

[7] Ministry of Education, “Education in Afghanistan: At a Glance, From 2001 to 2016 and beyond,” undated, provided to Human Rights Watch in April 2017 by Deputy Minister of General Education Dr. Ibrahim Shinwari, on file with Human Rights Watch.

[8] Human Rights Watch, “I Won’t Be a Doctor, and One Day You’ll Be Sick: Girls’ Access to Education in Afghanistan,” 2017,

[9] Government of Afghanistan, Central Statistics Organization, “Afghanistan Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey,” p. 125.

[10] United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) et al., “Education 2030: Framework for Action,” December 2015, (accessed June 14, 2017), art. 105.

[11] Rachel Cooper, “Aid dependency and political settlements in Afghanistan,” K4D, September 14, 2018,

[12] Julian Borger, “US to cut $1bn of Afghanistan aid over failure to agree unity government,” The Guardian, March 24, 2020,

[13] Human Rights Watch, “Education on the Front Lines: Military Use of Schools in Afghanistan’s Baghlan Province”, 2016,

[14] Ibid.

[15] “Afghanistan: Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict: 2019,” UNAMA, February 22, 2020,

[16] “Midyear Update on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict: 1 January to 30 June 2019,” UNAMA, July 30, 2019,

[17] “Afghanistan: Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict: 2019,” UNAMA, February 22, 2020,

[18] Letter from Minister of Education to Ministry of Interior Affairs, number 311, April 2016 and Letter from Minister of Education to National Security Council, number 194-196, July 2016, both available in Human Rights Watch, Protecting Schools from Military Use: Law, Policy, and Military Doctrine, May 2019.

[19] Statement by the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan on the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan Protection of Civilians Annual Report, February 12, 2018.

[20] Human Rights Watch, “Afghanistan: Little Help for Conflict-Linked Trauma,” 2019,

[21] UNICEF, “State of the World’s Children 2016,”

[22] Human Rights Watch, “I Won’t Be a Doctor, and One Day You’ll Be Sick.”

[23] Government of Afghanistan and UNFPA, “National Action Plan to End Early and Child Marriage in Afghanistan: 2017–2021,” July 2016, on file with Human Rights Watch, p. 10.

[24] Heather Barr, “Will Afghanistan Follow Through on Promise to End Child Marriage?: Up to One-Third of Afghan Girls Married Before Age 18,” commentary, Human Rights Dispatch, April 20, 2017,

[25] Bede Sheppard, “Afghan Activists Exposing Child Abuse Detained,” commentary, Human Rights Watch dispatch, November 27, 2019,

[26] Human Rights Watch, “Afghanistan: Sexual Assaults Go Unpunished,” February 12, 2020,

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