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One year of Taliban rule has devastated Afghanistan, but there are glimmers of hope within 'secret schools'

Supplies for the secret schools are provided by parents, as well as friends and community leaders who can afford to make a contribution.  (ABC News)

In a radical act of rebellion, teachers in Afghanistan have established an underground network of secret schools to help girls and young women continue their education, which has become a human right outlawed by the Taliban.

The teachers are disobeying militant rulers and risking their lives to ensure that at least a few Afghan girls and young women can keep learning.

Some hold the lessons in their apartments. Other schools have grown too big and have moved into vacant buildings. 

However, they're all behind closed doors, populated via a whisper network of teachers, parents and community leaders who find those who want to learn and send them to the women who are brave enough to teach them.

"Since the Taliban came to power and closed the schools, the girls and women did not have permission to work or do education. So, I decided to start this secret school initiative," founder and teacher Sodaba said. 

"In the beginning, I started in my home with three students then other girls showed interest and joined the classes."

For Sodaba, teaching is her resistance.

"The Taliban group does not represent Islam. There is no justification to deny girls from education in Islam. They just want impose their ideology on us."

For teenage Afghan girls who want to keep learning, the journey to school is a treacherous one.  (ABC News)

Afghan woman Azita teaches too. She recalls one day when the Taliban came knocking. 

"Some Taliban came and visited. We told them we teach the students only Islamic subjects," she said. 

"We have seen the negative impact of banning secondary schools. Girls are suffering from depression. It has caused mental illness. It has definitely made life difficult for women. 

"We wanted to give a little hope to the girls by starting this school."

'This secret school is a miracle'

Girls and young women pile into the classes, sharing desks and sitting on the floor between them, an image that speaks to how precious schooling is to those who can't access it.  

The walk to and from these secret schools is a treacherous one. The girls know they are violating the ban put in place by the Taliban and they know that puts them in danger. 

"I come secretly," one student — whose identity is hidden for security reasons — said. 

"It is so scary to get here. I am always scared coming from home to school. I trust my teacher, that is why I am coming here."

Like several others, she said, she has felt "down and depressed" over the past year and said her future would be "dark, uncertain and unknown". 

In Afghanistan, girls and young women pile into secret schools to continue their education.   (ABC News)

When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, girls were prohibited from receiving an education and most employment was also out of reach for women. 

Last year, when the Taliban returned to power there were promises things would be different and girls would be allowed to learn in schools. 

However, as the new school year began, the Taliban reneged on that promise and Afghan girls were turned away from the country's high schools.

Members of the Taliban leadership have made statements claiming the ban is for religious reasons and due to "cultural constraints", indicating the ban is not temporary as the group originally claimed.  

The teenage "secret school" student said several times that she felt hopeless, but she still had some messages for the world.

She said the young women of Afghanistan could help give the country "a bright future" and asked the Taliban to change its policies, and for those who were watching from afar to help "bring peace and stability".  

"A few months back, when we went to school, we found our schools' doors were closed. That day, we all were sad and depressed," she said. 

"Being able to get education in this secret school is a miracle."

The classes will not be accredited as formal study and they girls will not receive a high school certificate, but the teachers have found a structure that helps them deliver the basics. 

Students are taught content from Afghanistan's university entrance exam. They focus on one subject each week and the teachers adapt the material for the various ages ages of the students.

The reality is though, without a graduating certificate, the girls will not be eligible to sit the university entrance exam, which effectively bars them from tertiary study. 

On a whiteboard, one young woman writes a message in English. It's not perfect, but her meaning is clear: 'My gret umbsion peace in Afghanistan.'

A woman writes, in English, of her longing for "peace in Afghanistan". (ABC News)

Sodaba said the secret schools tried to provide hope in a hopeless situation and, for at least one young student, they have proven to be exactly that. 

"My only aim is to get education and [to] not accept the defeat," the student said.

She had been searching for a place to continue her studies and said: "Luckily, I was able to find this school and continue my education secretly." 

"I am a little hopeful — my hopes are slim — but I am still not hopeless," she added.

"I hope and pray that, one day, we have peace and I hope to see the doors of school opened again." 

The anniversary of the fall of Kabul

Girls who attend the secret schools say the classes are "a miracle" and provide some hope.   (ABC News)

For the founders of the secret schools, the classes stand as a message to the Western world that the women of Afghanistan have the same ambitions as they did one year ago when the Taliban moved on Kabul. 

"My message to UN and the Human Rights Council is that the Taliban is, like, 20 years back, but today the women are not the same [as] 20 years ago. We are a new generation," Sodaba said. 

"And my message to all Afghan girls is that we should fight for our rights." 

Tomorrow marks one year to the day since Kabul fell to the resurgent Taliban and the start of the post-United States era in Afghanistan. 

The week of August 15, 2021, saw those shocking scenes of Afghans clinging to the outside of a US Air Force Globemaster as it took off.

And the date marked a dark new chapter for the country's female judges, ministers and women's rights activists who lost 20 years of progress and learned they would need to flee their homeland or live in hiding.

While other wars have begun and the world's attention has largely moved on, life in Afghanistan has become increasingly desperate. 

One year of Taliban rule has pushed Afghanistan to the brink of famine, with more than 20 million people who do not have enough food to eat.

One in 10 children in Afghanistan go to bed hungry at night, according to a new Save the Children report.  (ABC News)

With failing financial institutions and little access to cash, the country has returned to a time of barter and anything is being traded for food.

Some families in Afghanistan have been forced to sell one child to feed their others. 

Major donors around the world suspended aid to Afghanistan when the Taliban took over, refusing to legitimise the militants as leaders of the country.

However, the people of Afghanistan are bearing the brunt of that loss. 

The Australian Council For International Development's director of policy and advocacy, Jessica Mackenzie, said the situation was dire.

"We're seeing tens of thousands children being admitted every month to hospital because they are starving and we are seeing many children in remote areas who cannot access services are actually dying of starvation," she said.  

"There are three children to one bed in the children's hospital in Kabul and the oxygen tanks don't have any oxygen in them either. So we are talking about a very difficult situation over there right now, so it's important the world doesn't forget Afghanistan."

In a report by Save the Children, released exclusively to the ABC, the organisation said it had found restrictions in Afghanistan — "especially those on women and girls, a near total economic collapse, and the policies adopted by the international community are combining to create a child rights disaster for girls and boys in Afghanistan".

"One in 10 children said they frequently go to bed hungry at night, nearly two-thirds of these children are girls," the report read. 

Save the Children found foreign sanctions, the withdrawal of development assistance and the economic crisis has plunged 97 per cent of Afghan households into poverty. 

In Kabul, bakery owners report women begging for bread outside their stalls.   (ABC News)

Around Kabul, women now wait outside bakeries to beg for bread. Among them is Maida Kar, who has six children at home and nothing to feed them. 

"Our life is difficult. If I find something, I bring it otherwise there is nothing to eat," she said.

"Last night I brought two dry breads. Two days back, I brought six breads. Today, I have brought nothing." 

She said regular rent on her small home was about 3,000 Afghani ($47), but she only earned 60 Afghani (less than $1) a day at her market stall. 

Before the fall of Kabul, Maida said she could make up to 600 Afghani a day. 

Her family is now burdened by debt and illness, she said: "Our life is difficult day and night." 

Ms Mackenzie said it was important not to legitimise the Taliban, but the international development community needed to unite to help Afghanistan out of this "compounded crisis". 

"We need to promote the full re-engagement of organisations [such as] the World Bank, the IMF and other financial Institutions. We need to be paying salaries on the ground. We need to be delivering programs and we need to be united," she said.  

Afghans wait for Australian visas

With six children to feed and some illness in her family, Maida Kar, says: "Life is difficult day and night." (ABC News)

As the situation in Afghanistan worsens, governments around the world are being called on to do more. 

Australia's Senate held an inquiry into the country's involvement in Afghanistan, including the withdrawal and the effort made at the time to get those Afghans who had worked with Australia to safety.

Those locally engaged employees were targeted by the Taliban over their connection to the West and the inquiry heard some were killed while waiting for an Australian visa.

There are now recommendations from that inquiry sitting with the new Immigration Minister, Andrew Giles, including that the government should "extend all available effort to finalising certifications and visa applications for Afghan Locally Engaged Employees and their families as quickly as possible, and [extend] assistance to those still eligible in Afghanistan to make their way to Australia". 

As well as Afghans who worked with the Australian military and embassy, there are family members of Australian citizens being targeted for their association with Afghanistan's resistance movement. 

There are women's rights activists and children who are also waiting for visas.

These Afghans have spent a year struggling to survive, often in hiding from the Taliban, while waiting to hear if they have progressed in Australia's visa queue. 

Ms Mackenzie said what was required now was expediency.

"We need to process those visas and we need to communicate more clearly about how they're being delivered," she said. 

"There are people who have fled their homes, who are living in fear and who are waiting in other countries to come to Australia and access those visas because they are living in fear of persecution." 

A Department of Home Affairs spokesperson asked for patience, saying there are more applications for visas than there are places available.

"The total number of places available to Afghan nationals [is] 31,500 over the next four program years, which comprises 26,500 places under the Humanitarian Program and 5,000 under the family stream of the Migration Program," the spokesperson said in a statement. 

"As at August 5, 2022 — since 17 August 2021 — more than 47,900 humanitarian visa applications have been lodged in Australia by, or on behalf of, Afghan nationals and remain undecided, comprising more than 211,100 applicants." 

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