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Girls all over Iran are being poisoned in their schools

As we commemorate another International Women’s Day, girls’ education continues being seen as a threat in some parts of the world. The plight of Afghan girls and women is one concrete example of this, whose education has been erased entirely under Taliban rule, just as it was the last time they were in power.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan, Richard Bennett, presented a report at the start of February to the Human Rights Council in Geneva that said the Taliban’s ban on female education “may amount to gender persecution, a crime against humanity”.

In Nigeria, Boko Haram, an Islamist militant group, has kidnapped hundreds of girls and women, with the precise number difficult to determine, as many cases may go unreported or unnoticed. As of February 2023, more than a hundred of the Chibok girls kidnapped in 2014 have still not been released. It is a primordial instinct to react to something you are afraid of by trying to annihilate it. A fear of an empowered generation of women is what leads to girls’ education being attacked. Being afraid of girls’ education implies nothing more than a desire to impose stereotypical visions of what a woman ‘should be’.

The case of more than a thousand Iranian girls who have been poisoned since November is another shocking example of an attack on education. Although the precise circumstances have not yet been established, it appears that at least 100 schools in 28 of its 31 provinces have been attacked with some form of nitrogen gas.

Some authorities had tried to explain the incidents away, as isolated and triggered by psychological factors. But a minister suggested that the attacks had been explicitly targeted to close schools on March 5. And the news led Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s supreme leader, to acknowledge on March 6 that attacks had taken place and to call for perpetrators to be administered the capital punishment if proven guilty. The first arrests were made just yesterday on March 7.

There is speculation that the attacks were part of efforts by extremist circles to intimidate those who had taken part in demonstrations since September in protest to the death of a young woman, while in custody for allegedly failing to cover herself with a headscarf.

While these are some of the most widely reported attacks on girls’ education, there are sadly many more with less publicity. The latest annual report by the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack found that girls and women were reportedly targeted because of their gender in attacks on education in at least 11 countries, including Pakistan. This included girls’ schools being burned or bombed and students or staff being threatened, killed or abducted.

Education empowers by giving students understanding of who they are, what their rights are and the change that they can bring about with their own voice and their own actions. The least countries can do to ensure girls’ right to be educated in a safe learning environment is to endorse and implement the Safe Schools Declaration.


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