Afghan Women and Men Far Apart in Literacy

(June 2000) The gap in male-female literacy in Afghanistan, which will undoubtedly widen as a result of the current government’s draconian policies, offers a striking illustration of women’s marginal status in that country.

While the inequalities in education are significant within South Asia as a whole, the situation in Afghanistan is especially dramatic. Within South Asia, 1.75 times as many men as women can read and write. In Afghanistan, more than three times as many men as women are literate. Some 47 percent of Afghan men and a tiny 15 percent of women can read and write, according to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

In highlighting the inequality, a recent UNICEF report points to the rigid controls set for women by Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers since the religious-based movement took power in September 1996.

“Discrimination is most severe in war-torn Afghanistan, where Taliban authorities have barred girls from school,” says UNICEF’s State of the World’s Children 1999.

The stringent rules that have kept Afghan women and girls out of sight for the last three years have been well documented. A 1999 report published by the Boston-based Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) stresses that one of the first edicts issued by the Taliban regime was to prohibit girls and women from attending school. Taliban authorities have also barred women from working outside the home. In fact, women are not allowed to leave their homes unless accompanied by a male family member. And when they appear in public, women must wear the burqa, a garment that covers the entire body, allowing only a mesh opening for the purposes of seeing and breathing.

“The Taliban’s edicts restricting women’s rights have had a disastrous impact on Afghan women’s and girls’ access to education, as well as health care,” according to the PHR report, titled The Taliban War on Women: A Health and Human Rights Crisis in Afghanistan.

The ascendancy of the Taliban in Afghanistan represents the latest of several stages in a civil war that has lasted more than 20 years. During the past two decades, the Afghan population experienced a Communist revolution, a Soviet invasion and occupation, and a guerrilla war fueled by external forces. Throughout this period, the indiscriminate use of force, massacres of combatants as well as noncombatants, torture, and other serious human rights abuses were routine occurrences, according to the United Nations and several international human rights organizations.

In this largely rural, war-torn country of nearly 27 million people, men have a longer life expectancy than women. The average girl born today in Afghanistan is expected to live to a meager 45 years, one year less than her male counterpart, according to the Population Reference Bureau. This is one of only a few countries in which male longevity is greater than that of females.

In the meantime, the gap between male and female literacy is certain to widen. The difference, which was 27 percentage points in the 1980s, grew to 32 percentage points in the 1990s. Ironically, literacy rates among females were improving faster than the rates for males as recently as 1995. While the literacy rate among males was 5.5 times that of females in 1980, the 1995 male rate was just three times that of females. With girls having had no formal schooling for more than three years, however, the gap in literacy between males and females could turn into a gulf.


  • Total population (mid-2000): 26.7 million
  • Estimated population in 2025: 48.0 million
  • Life expectancy at birth: 46 years
  • Total fertility rate: 6.1 children per woman
  • Per capita income (1998 US$): not available

Yvette Collymore is a senior editor at the Population Reference Bureau.