Then two brothers, among the few literate men in the village, began quietly teaching math, reading and writing to their female relatives in a living room on the edge of town. They wanted to keep the classes small, they said, to stay off the Taliban’s radar. That turned out to be impossible.
The United States and its allies have spent millions of dollars on female education in the past decade, and Afghan and Western officials have pointed to the issue as one of the most hopeful changes of the post-Taliban era. Female enrollment in public schools has risen from 5,000 under the Taliban to 2.5 million, according to the Afghan Education Ministry.
But Afghanistan is rife with places like Spina, where formal efforts to educate women and girls have crumbled. About 2 million Afghan girls do not attend school.
Those who do sometimes face threats. Last week, suspected militants poisoned more than 100 schoolgirls in northern Afghanistan, according to Amanullah Iman, a spokesman for the Education Ministry, who said an investigation into the incident was ongoing. The girls are recovering.
Because of threats, several schools in eastern Afghanistan have been closed in the past few months, reversing what had been a positive trend, said Vidhya Ganesh, the deputy country representative for UNICEF.
The insurgency had already forced the closure of dozens of girls schools beginning in the middle of past decade, when insurgents started to return to Afghanistan. Many of the schools were built and funded by the United States, and many never reopened. In some villages, the schools have gone underground, hidden in living rooms and guesthouses, as they were during the Taliban’s reign.
“It’s risky for the teachers and it’s risky for the students, but these underground schools show the thirst people have for education under the Taliban,” said Shukriya Barakzai, a parliamentarian who ran her own underground school when the Taliban held power in Kabul in the 1990s.
“It doesn’t feel much different from those years,” said one of the brothers in insurgent-infested Spina. “We live in a community very far from democracy and freedom.”
‘Something from nothing’
When the insurgency arrived in this patch of Paktika province in 2005, it did so with great force and little resistance. The absence of Afghan or American security forces meant fighters could wield weapons freely and threaten residents without consequence. The warning to girls went unchallenged.
But word soon spread about the underground girls school — part of a shadow education system developed in places such as Spina to elude the Taliban. The full extent of the system is not known, but American and Afghan officials say such underground networks are not uncommon in places with a large insurgent presence.