Afghanistan's first lady, Rula Ghani, acknowledged Monday the government still has work to do to better provide access to education for school-aged girls, particularly given the lack of female teachers and basic facilities in schools like toilets.
Ghani, who delivered remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, appealed to international aid groups for assistance in training women living in rural regions to become teachers, noting a disproportionate level of support in Afghanistan's five urban centers.
Afghanistan struggles with a general shortage of teachers, but the difficulty of enticing female teachers to relocate to rural areas has undercut Kabul's efforts to expand education access in those regions, particularly for girls.
According to a report released earlier this month by Human Rights Watch, fewer than 20 percent of teachers are female in half of the country's provinces, creating a "major barrier" for the girls whose families will not allow their daughters to be taught by men.
Though millions of Afghan girls are now attending school 16 years after the fall of the Taliban, which prohibited women from receiving an education, an estimated two-thirds are still kept home.
Ghani said she understood the reluctance by parents to send their daughters to a school that lacks female teachers given cultural norms, and said the issue lays with the lack of training in education for women.
"I can relate—I would be more comfortable with a female teacher if I had a daughter, so the problem is not necessarily [a parent's] willingness, the problem is there are not enough women that are being trained as teachers that are from that province," Ghani said.
Ghani said the hindrance is particularly prominent in rural Afghanistan, where international aid agencies are reluctant to send humanitarian workers due to security concerns. She said this has led to a disparate spread of female teachers because women trained in cities are unlikely to relocate to a village lacking running water or bathroom facilities.
"It is my plea to whoever is here with international aid agencies, please find a way to train people from the [rural] provinces to get services in those provinces," she said. "This would be really, very important and change a lot."
Ghani, who has repeatedly broken convention in the conservative country to advocate for women's rights, said she was optimistic about the changing cultural and social norms supportive of girls attending school.
"Everywhere, men and women, emphasis on men, were saying we need to educate our daughters," she said. "So at least the mentality has changed from the mentality of the times before where it was said we don't really need to educate our women—the boys can go to school, the girls have to stay home and take care of the chores."
She recently witnessed this shift first-hand while meeting with a conservative father and his two daughters, who wore surgical masks to cover their faces. The father, dressed in traditional garb, had arranged the meeting with Ghani to tell her that his two daughters were in their first year of medical school to become doctors—a feat unthinkable less than two decades ago.