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‘She asked me, will they kill you if they discover you?’: Afghan girls defy education ban at secret schools | Afghanistan

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When inspectors arrive at the school gate, which is most weeks now, the older girls know the drill. They slip away from their classes, race to a musty room and huddle together for long minutes that sometimes stretch into hours, hoping they won’t be discovered by the men who want them shut up at home.

The Taliban have banned secondary education for girls, the only gender-based bar on studying in the world.

One year on from the withdrawal of US troops and the militant group’s takeover of the country, learning algebra is now an illegal act of resistance. Teenagers who should be worrying about complex equations, English grammar or Persian poetry, also have to weigh up what happens if they are found in a classroom.

Students leave a secret girls’ school in Afghanistan in July
Students leave a secret girls’ school in Afghanistan in July. Photograph: Nanna Muus Steffensen/The Guardian

“I have noticed plenty of changes in our students,” said Arezoo* headteacher of one Kabul school that decided to keep its doors open to high school girls in defiance of the ban.

“Psychologically they are under stress all the time, I can see in their eyes and behaviour. They used to come with lots of energy and excitement. Now they are never sure if this will be their last day in class. You can see how they are broken.”

Some inspections last hours and the fear spills over. “Even the younger girls (who are allowed in school) are affected. When we say the Taliban are coming and the older girls have to hide, the girls in 3rd and 4th grade start crying.”

Taliban officials claim the ban is temporary, variously citing the need to change security, uniforms, teachers, buildings or the curriculum. But many Afghans remember last time the group controlled Afghanistan, when a “temporary” closure of girls’ schools endured for their entire six-year rule.

So as girls slid into depression, robbed of their dreams of becoming doctors, pilots, engineers, teachers orartists, women and men around Afghanistan began fighting back.

A student holds a sign she has prepared for the Guardian’s visit to a secret girls’ school
A student holds a sign she has prepared for the Guardian’s visit to a secret girls’ school. Photograph: Nanna Muus Steffensen/The Guardian

“I told my mother I had this idea, to reopen classes for high school girls, and asked her what she thought,” said Jawad*, who manages one private school that decided to reopen secondary classes.

“She asked me, ‘will they kill you if they discover you?’ I told her no, they will probably just hit me. So she said ‘Do it, you’ll forget a slap in an hour or two.’”

“Secret schools” have sprung up all over the country, as varied as the educators running them. Some are online classes, though they can only reach the minority of Afghans with smartphones and data access.

Some are private schools, operating much as they did before, apart from the long shadow of fear. Others are much more improvised efforts, designed as much to keep up morale and girls studying something in the hopes schools will reopen, than as a substitute for formal education.

Two girls take refreshment after class
Two girls take refreshment after class. Photograph: Nanna Muus Steffensen/The Guardian

Improvised efforts

“In the beginning everyone was crushed and disappointed, and they would even question what is the point of studying,” said Mahdia*, who set up a school teaching 7th grade classes in a mosque close to her semi-rural home near a provincial capital.

An engineer who recently graduated near the top of her class at one of Afghanistan’s best universities, the 23-year-old worked on infrastructure projects until last summer, and misses her job terribly. But she sees little chance of being allowed back.

“Some positions in some ministries are still open to women, but for engineering a lot of our work is in the field and the Taliban are strongly against it for women. All my [female] classmates are unemployed, there is nothing for them to do.”

A girl participates in a math class
A girl participates in a maths class. Photograph: Nanna Muus Steffensen/The Guardian

So while she studies English and looks for scholarships to do a further engineering degree in another country, she decided to teach local girls.

She negotiated with a mosque to hold the classes there – she comes from a Shia community that has avidly supported girls’ education over the past two decades – and got practical support from an NGO, Shahmama, which provides text books and stationery, and is raising funds to pay the teachers a small stipend.

“I do this as a volunteer, to support the girls and create hope in their future, and the girls also give me hope,” Mahdia said.

On a recent afternoon, her students slipped across the fields in pairs in the afternoon heat, books in hand like girls going to school in any other country. When they noticed a stranger watching though, they gathered speed and ducked inside the mosque.

The group includes one girl who was within weeks of finishing 11th grade when the previous government collapsed, three who were in 9th grade, 11 who were in 8th grade and six who were in 7th grade.

“Of course, sometimes we feel bad to be back in 7th grade, but it’s better than sitting at home doing nothing,” said Zarifa*, who has gone back two years. “We get to meet classmates and revise our lessons.”

Mahdia teaches one subject, for an hour a day, but assigns homework to keep the girls busy in the long hours at home when it is easy to start thinking about everything that has been lost. She starts and ends each session with a motivational talk.

“Every day when we start and finish I talk to them a bit, and try to motivate them, with messages like ‘no knowledge is wasted’. I tell them I am here to teach and support you, you have to stay hopeful, take your opportunities.”

A class gets underway
A class gets under way. Photograph: Nanna Muus Steffensen/The Guardian

Defiance and compromise

Schools such as Mahdia’s are beacons of hope in a bleak time, and many of their students are filled with extraordinary defiance of the armed men who cut short their studies.

“I have my argument ready if a Taliban stops me. I will say ‘you didn’t study so you are like this, I have to study so I won’t be the same,’” said Hasinat*, a 7th grade student.

But the compromises so many girls and teachers have made to be there – repeating grades, hiding from inspectors, swallowing the loss of their own careers – underline how much has been stolen from the women of Afghanistan by its new rulers.

And many of the adults running these schools fear their work will not be able to continue indefinitely, because of financial and official pressure.

Illegal classes kept girls’ dreams alive last time the Taliban were in power. Those who defied the Taliban to study include the journalist Zahra Joya, named as one of Time magazine’s women of the year for 2022, and the educator and Washington Post columnist Shabana Basij-Rasikh.

They mostly went to primary school during Taliban rule, dressed as boys. Older female students are much harder to conceal, and Jawad is bracing for the day when the girls are discovered in class or their hiding place uncovered.

“Perhaps I can continue this risky job for a year or two but then I may get arrested, and when I do, what will happen to them?” he said. “The day they force me to really ban the girls, I will shut the school and leave the country.”

Even if authorities decide to turn a blind eye to some schools – and they have given at least one prestigious private chain tacit permission to keep some of its branches open outside the capital – a financial crunch looms.

Secret schools all need private funding, and while some comes from NGOs, most rely on fees. Afghanistan’s economy is collapsing, expected to shrink by about a third, and many families are struggling to find money for school even when it is a priority.

“The financial situation of the school is very bad since the Taliban. Students were paying 1,500 to 4,000 afghanis a month (£14 to £36), but most of those families left. We have new students now but they can’t afford more than 500 to 2,000 a month mostly,” said Gulbano*, s the financial manager of one Kabul school.

“We had to offer very low fees as no one has much money at home, and we are educating some orphans for free,” she added. The director of another school still offering girls’ high school classes said he was besieged by requests for cheaper fees, but was already operating at a loss.

One of the students leaves a secret girls’ school
A student leaves a secret girls’ school. Photograph: Nanna Muus Steffensen/The Guardian

Parental pressure

Jawad decided to restart classes after mothers and fathers begged him to help. “All the families were coming to ask about their girls. They said, ‘our boys are coming but what about our girls?’”

“Education is everything,” said one father, whose 10-year-old daughter, something of a prodigy, is newly enrolled in 7th grade there. He found the school by doggedly asking about classes every time he saw girls coming out of a building carrying books.

“Of course I have concerns for her and me, but I want my daughters to achieve their dreams, I don’t want them to just become ‘aunties’, sitting at home all day just asking their husbands for money.

At Mahdia’s semi-rural school, less than a quarter of the girls have mothers who were able to go to school, and under half have fathers who are literate.

“They have a lot of difficulties in life, so they always motivate us, saying ‘don’t be like us,’” said Mursal*, who is married and supported by her husband. “Before they give any medicine to my younger siblings, I have to read the label and the dose for them.”

The Taliban have tacitly acknowledged parental pressure for education, allowing schools to stay open in a handful of provinces, including northern Balkh, and southern Zabul.

Hopes that the government might reverse course nationally have been repeatedly crushed, first in March when girls were called back to school then ordered home again as soon as they reached their classrooms.

More recently, a national gathering of clerics was expected to endorse girls’ education, but ended with only a vague nod to women’s rights. Sources with links to the Taliban leadership say hardliners who oppose girls’ education have the upper hand for now, so Afghan girls have to keep studying in secret, and Afghan men and women have to keep breaking the law to help them do it.

“I’m not old, but I’ve got lines on my forehead. The way the girls look makes me very sad sometimes, like I want to cry.” said Jawad, who is fundraising for a therapist for the students. “I think to myself ‘why do I have to hide you from our government.’”

* All names and some identifying details have been changed to protect the girls and their schools.

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‘Silence is the crime’: Patrice Evra on surviving abuse and his work with the WHO | Global development

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His autobiography had been written and was at the printers when international football star Patrice Evra decided he had something important to add about his life. But first he had to tell his mum. “That was the hardest challenge,” he says. “And I was a 40-year-old man.”

Until that point last year, the former Manchester United and French national team captain had never spoken about being sexually abused by a teacher when he was 13.

Last week the Senegal-born Evra stepped on what he called “the most famous podium in the world” – the stage of the UN general assembly in New York – to speak about the abuse and his decision to take up a new role campaigning for the protection of children, especially in Africa. That moment, he says, and the standing ovation for his impassioned call for action, meant more to him than any of the trophies he accumulated in his world-class football career.

“People were in shock when I wrote this in my book. So I wanted to share,” Evra says. This year the former player visited several African countries with the World Health Organization (WHO), speaking in schools and meeting survivors of abuse.

“I’d started to be on social media and, OK, I’m a bad singer, but every time I did a video I was singing and people were starting to say to me that this helped them. So I thought, ‘OK, I can do more than that,’ and I started working with the WHO, to go to Africa.

Patrice Evra speaks at the UN general assembly.
Patrice Evra speaks at the UN general assembly. Photograph: Loey Felipe/UN Photo

“I met a lot of survivors. I’m just in a learning process. Just because I experienced sexual violence at the age of 13 doesn’t mean I know everything. So it was pretty simple, to start to talk.

“Abuse is taboo, but I love everything taboo, bring it on. In African culture, for a black person it can be even difficult to talk about love. I never saw my mum kissing my dad. I never saw that. So for an African person to have succeeded in his life and then talk about things like this, they were in shock.

“I went to a school, the teacher asked the kids, ‘Do you think it’s possible for a black person to be abused?’ They all said no. Then I shared my story. They couldn’t believe it. For them it was impossible for a man.”

Evra says his retirement from professional football in July 2019 was a catalyst. For starters he learned to cry.

“I grew up thinking that crying was a weakness but actually now I understand that you actually should cry. You should share your emotion. Women are 10 years in advance, maybe more … but men should cry.

“It would have been too difficult to show emotion when I was still playing. I remember once with a team, we were on a plane and there was a player and he was watching a movie and he was crying and I was like, ‘Why are you crying?’ He said, ‘This movie, I’ve watched it five times and it always makes me cry.’

“My first reaction was to turn to my teammates and say, ‘This guy cannot play a game of football. This is weak.’ But now I am a different man, I would watch this movie with him and I would cry with him. But back then, for me it was impossible.”

Evra playing for Manchester United against Arsenal in the English Premier League, 2011.
Evra playing for Manchester United against Arsenal in the English Premier League, 2011. Photograph: Eddie Keogh / Reuters/REUTERS

Evra did not speak out even when the police officers investigating his abuser contacted him. “I remember at 24 I was playing for Monaco and the police called me and said, ‘We have had some complaints about this man, do you know anything?’, and I said no. So I lied. You don’t want to deal with it.”

It was when he was watching a documentary on paedophilia with his partner, the Danish model Margaux Alexandra, that the realisation came. “She saw my face and I just let my emotions out and I said, ‘You know what, I think I have to put it in the book.’

“For my mum, she was devastated. To that 13-year-old kid, now a grown man and facing her, she kept saying, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry”, but I said, ‘No mum, I’m OK, I’m fine.’ And that is why I don’t call myself a victim, I’m a survivor.

“You feel shame, you feel guilty. I just blocked it. I said: ‘Mum, I don’t even remember his face … I don’t want any pity for myself.’

“When I was captain of Manchester United or the French national team, people always saw me as someone who never showed their emotion and [they] say that’s because I am from the street and tough, but actually it’s because of this trauma that I was this way.”

Evra’s father was a diplomat and moved the family from Senegal to Brussels when Evra was one, before settling in the Paris suburb of Les Ulis two years later.

“School is normally a place where I should have been safe. I should have had someone protect me … I didn’t have it. It was instead a place that took all my emotion away. It was difficult for me to trust people after that,” he says.

On top of growing up in a difficult neighbourhood – with 23 siblings and half-siblings – Evra also had the deep-seated racism prevalent in Europe’s football clubs to contend with.

Racism was really tough,” he says. “I played in Italy when I was 17 and I was the only black player in the league. I had the whole thing of monkey noises and people throwing bananas. For me, it made me think, ‘I’m going to hurt you in a different way, on the pitch.’ The racism was not bad at Manchester United but of course it is there. Even when England had the three black players who missed the penalties, on social media it was just crazy. It’s not only England [but] in France too: when you play well you are a French player, when you play badly you are a Senegalese player.

Evra answers questions at a UN side event about child protection.
Evra answers questions at a UN side event about child protection. Photograph: Joe Short

“Silence is the crime. For racism, for abuse. When they tried to do the Super League, I see everyone talking about this with such energy and I’m thinking, ‘Why don’t we have this energy to tackle racism?’”

Globally, WHO estimates that up to 1 billion children aged two to 17 will have experienced physical, sexual, or emotional violence or neglect in the past year.

Evra, a father himself, says something must be done. “We have to end the violence. We are talking about many things but I don’t hear about ending the violence against children. Why is it so taboo?

“The support is important to end the violence, everyone experiences violence in their childhood. We need to support the family. We need to hear the stories of survivors. This is the start.”

In the UK, Rape Crisis offers support for rape and sexual abuse on 0808 802 9999 in England and Wales, 0808 801 0302 in Scotland, or 0800 0246 991 in Northern Ireland. In the US, Rainn offers support on 800-656-4673. In Australia, support is available at 1800Respect (1800 737 732). Other international helplines can be found at ibiblio.org/rcip/internl.html

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How Budget Deficit May Become a Real Problem for US

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President Joe Biden’s plan to slash student loan debt could cost US taxpayers about $400 billion, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said on September 26. This did not, however, prevent congressional negotiators from agreeing on nearly $12 billion in new military and economic assistance to Ukraine.

“The US budget deficit is an old story,” said Dr. Paul Craig Roberts, a US economist and ex-assistant secretary of the Treasury under Ronald Reagan. “The ‘Reagan deficits’ (approximately $200 billion) according to critics were supposed to collapse the US economy in 1982-84. In 2020, the US budget deficit was $3,100 billion – 15 times larger. In 2021 the deficit was $2,800 billion. This year it is projected to be $1,000 billion but will be much larger as the Federal Reserve is driving the economy into recession.”

However, US citizens do not appear concerned by the mounting numbers since they have been hearing about large and growing budget deficits all their lives and nothing yet has happened, the economist remarks.

To complicate matters further, the deficit issue has become a “rhetorical shell game” for the government, the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler wrote last week. For instance, earlier this month President Joe Biden bragged about cutting the $350 billion budget deficit last year, “but the reality is he’s increased the budget deficit, not reduced it,” Kessler highlighted.
Thus, the budget deficit was expected to decline $875 billion in 2021, but Biden’s additional COVID relief and other new policies resulted in a more modest decline of $360 billion. At the same time, the US president’s decision to reduce student debt for millions could cost somewhere between $400 billion and $600 billion over a decade, according to some estimates. In addition, there are “unexpected emergencies,” such as the Ukraine conflict, which put pressure on the federal budget, Kessler remarked, citing a new accounting by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, which claims that an additional $4.8 trillion in borrowing has been added in the 2021-2031 period under Biden.
Dollar bills are deposited in a tip box, May 24, 2021 in New York. - Sputnik International, 1920, 21.09.2022

How the US Fed Rate Hike May Backfire on Global Economy

“As long as the dollar is the reserve currency and is used to settle most international payments, the US deficits are financed by countries holding their foreign reserves in US dollar securities,” explains Dr. Roberts. “So foreigners finance the US deficit and the Federal Reserve itself buys any overhang. This is why the deficit has not been a problem.”

Still, there are several reasons why the US budget deficit could indeed become a financing problem, according to the economist.

First, the Federal Reserve announced that its current policy is to sell bonds, removing the central bank as a purchaser of US Treasury debt, Dr. Roberts pointed out. Second, US sanctions by abusing the world currency role is causing other countries to move away from using dollars to settle their international transactions. “That means less dollars will find their way into foreign central bank reserves,” the former Reagan official elaborated.

As of yet, however, the US dollar is safe and sound while other reserve currencies – the euro and UK pound – are collapsing due to sanctions-produced energy shortages and possible industry shutdowns, according to the economist. Having sucked the life from the euro and the pound. the greenback remains the preferred and strongest currency. “Until Russia, China, and participating countries create their own payments and clearing system, there remains no alternative to the US dollar,” Dr. Roberts remarked.

Knife crime - Sputnik International, 1920, 26.09.2022

‘Absolutely Hammered’: UK Pound Slides to Its Lowest Level Against US Dollar Since 1971

Greenback’s Strength Not Infinite, Recession to Bite US

While this state of affairs lulls some US politicians into believing that they can rely on the dollar’s strength forever and continue to fund overseas wars, the US’ domestic problems pile up.

“US infrastructure is wearing out,” says Dr. Roberts. “Much of it is financed by local and state governments, and their revenue position has been badly damaged by the offshoring of US manufacturing, which has deprived them of tax revenues while massive influx of immigrant-invaders have pushed up the cost of supporting the illegal entrants. As the federal government permits the entry of millions of illegals, perhaps the federal government should be assuming the related costs instead of sending weapons to Ukraine.”

In addition, soaring prices are eating away at savings and real wages as inflation still remains at a 40-year higher. Polls indicate that inflation has largely become a major concern of voters along with crime. The unfolding situation may deal a heavy blow to the Democratic Party in the November midterms by stripping it of its slim majority in the US Congress. If this happens, it may curb the Biden administration’s political ambitions and disrupt its plans with some Republican lawmakers threatening to impeach the incumbent.
US police crime scene tape - Sputnik International, 1920, 26.09.2022

Crime and Inflation Creating Difficult Headwinds for Democrats Ahead of Midterms, Observers Say
There is yet another problem on the horizon, according to Dr. Roberts. The economist assumes that the Federal Reserve will drag the nation deeper into recession by aggressively increasing interest rates at a time when consumer demand is cooling and the US economy is slowing down.

“The effect of the Federal Reserve’s recession on the deficit will be far greater than the military expenditures for Ukraine, which are mere pocket change,” the former Reagan official notes.

Last week, the Federal Reserve raised its benchmark interest rate by 75 basis points again with its chair, Jay Powell, planning an additional 1.25 percentage points’ worth of increases this year. Even though these interventions could hurt the labor, housing and stock markets, Powell is not going to back down. “I wish there were a painless way to do that. There isn’t,” the Fed chair told journalists last week.



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Brazil election: Lula maintains lead over Bolsonaro in final stretch to vote | International

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Brazil’s presidential election is shaping up to be a battle between the far right, represented by the current President Jair Bolsonaro, and the left, which has been gaining ground over the past few years. And with less than a week to go until the first round on October 2, the leftist candidate, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, is in the lead. According to poll averages, analyzed by EL PAÍS, the Workers’ Party (PT) candidate holds an advantage of around 10 points over Bolsonaro. But to win the election in the first round and avoid a runoff vote on October 30, he needs to secure more than 50% of the vote. At the moment, he is five points short of this threshold, but he may be able to sway the 7% of voters who are currently undecided or planning to abstain.

Lula’s lead over Bolsonaro has been more or less stable since the beginning of May, when he officially announced he was running for president. The fluctuations in the margin appear to be due more to circumstantial issues, and it is unclear whether they will affect the outcome of the October 2 vote. For now, none of the most recent polls, nor the historical averages calculated by EL PAÍS, give Lula a lead of more than 15 points or show him clearly winning the election in the first round.

The polls indicate that Bolsonaro gained more support when former judge, Sergio Moro, and João Doria, the former governor of São Paulo, pulled out of the race. But this has not appeared to affect Lula’s voter base, which also remained stable after the centrist Simone Tebet and center-left politician Ciro Gomes announced their candidacies. In other words, Lula’s base seems notably less volatile than that of the current president.

For this reason, recent polls have begun to question whether Lula could in fact win the election in the first round. An overwhelming victory at the October 2 vote would also make it more difficult for Bolsonaro to deny the election results, something which he has hinted at doing.

For both Lula and Bolsonaro, the margin between the highest and lowest estimate in the polls is between only six and eight points. This means that even if Lula achieves the lowest estimate and Bolsonaro the highest, the former president would still be in the lead. What’s more, the difference in estimates is partly due to the differing criteria of pollsters and whether estimates include undecided voters. If undecided voters are excluded from the poll averages, Lula would go from winning an estimated 44.9% to 48.2%, while Bolsonaro would receive 37.1% of the vote. In this case, Lula would have an 11-point lead over Bolsonaro, but still not the 51% or more required to win the election in the first round.

In other words, polls show that Lula will lead Bolsonaro in the first round, but will not win enough support to avoid a runoff vote on October 30. There are still days to go before the end of the high-profile campaign, which has been rocked by violence, including threats, harrasment and the murder of Lula supporters at the hands of Bolsonaro backers.

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