NEW DELHI: Three Afghan girls were brutally attacked on the street, when two men on a motorbike threw acid on their faces in the country’s western Herat province. The girls’ crime? They were on their way to school.

The province’s education minister, Aziz-ul-Rahman Sarwary, said that the girls were aged between 16 and 18 and enrolled at one of the biggest girls' schools in Herat city, the provincial capital. Two of the girls were in critical condition after the acid was thrown in their faces.

"This is the punishment for going to school," the men reportedly told the girls after throwing acid on them, said the hospital head, Jamal Abdul Naser Akhundzada, where the girls were admitted.

The incident is a reminder that long after the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, girls in the country are still fighting for the right to an education. Although an estimated 2.5 million girls are officially enrolled in schools, a significantly smaller number actually attend classes regularly. This is because of the impediments faced, with girls in many parts of the country not being allowed to complete a primary education. By the time girls enter secondary school, there is only one girl to every four boys attending in school. Only one in 20 girls attend school beyond the sixth grade. In fact, in about 80 percent of rural districts, there are no girls in secondary school at all.

(2014 saw war-related casualties in Afghanistan reach a record high, with women and children killed also reaching record numbers. Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

This scenario has contributed to an extremely depressing statistic: 85 percent of women in Afghanistan have no formal education and are illiterate.

This, in turn, relates to other equally depressing statistics. More than 50 percent of Afghan girls are married or engaged by age 12. More than 60 percent are married by 16.

In fact, data obtained by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) concludes that the practices that violate the rights of women and girls are pervasive throughout Afghanistan, occurring in all ethnic communities and in rural as well as urban areas.

However, it is important to note that there have been significant improvements in the plight of women in the last decade in Afghanistan. Since 2002, the number of girls attending school increased by over 30 percent; the official age for girls marrying has been increased from to 16 to 17 -- although this means little in practice as most marriages in Afghanistan are without the stamp of a marriage certificate and hence, difficult to monitor; women can be employed (albeit only if their male relatives permit it), child mortality has decreased by half.

(Burqas fail to shield many Afghan women from daily harassment, both in the street and at the workplace. Credit: Shelly Kittleson/IPS)

However, there is a long way to go. The attitude toward women is changing slowly -- as evinced by this recent incident. This lack of change is also represented by the country’s legislation, and even more so by the (lack of) implementation. The landmark Elimination of Violence against Women (EVAW) Law, passed in 2009, remains unevenly enforced and has only led to a limited number of convictions. An Amnesty International investigation found that a lack of political will on the part of Afghan authorities means that government bodies and officials charged with protecting women are under-resourced and lack the support to carry out their work.

Further, women’s rights, or rather -- the lack of, in Afghanistan had come to the international media’s attention recently over the controversy surrounding a bill that would effectively deny women facing abuse legal protection being passed by the Afghan parliament last year.

According to the proposed bill, relatives of the accused could not be questioned as witnesses. As a majority of abuse takes place inside the home most often by family members, the bill implies for instance, that a woman who is the victim of domestic abuse at the hands of her husband cannot testify against him or a girl who has been forced into marriage cannot testify against her family.

(The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) estimates a 22 percent increase in cases of violence against women. Marius Arnesen/CC-BY-SA-2.0. Credit: IPS)

The outcry that followed the bill’s signing ensured that the President at the time, Hamid Karzai, did not sign the bill into effect. However, the fact that it was proposed and passed by a majority of the two houses of parliament is indicative of the vulnerable position of women in Afghan society.