HERAT -- One Afghan girl's act of defiance has grown into international advocacy for girls' education in Afghanistan.
Sotoda Forotan, a 10th-grader, was supposed to recite a poem at a public event in Herat on October 21 attended by local authorities.
Sotoda instead gave a speech urging officials to reopen secondary schools and universities for girls.
A short video of Sotoda's speech went viral on Afghan social media and garnered praise from viewers.
And on November 6, middle schools and high schools in Herat city reopened for girls for a few weeks before they closed for the winter holidays.
Sotoda's speech has put her in the international spotlight.
The Financial Times on December 2 included Sotoda on its list of the 25 most influential women of 2021 for her advocacy of girls' education in Afghanistan.
With the help of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai, Sotoda wrote to US President Joe Biden calling for stronger US support for Afghan girls' education.
Yousafzai, an advocate of girls' education in Pakistan who was shot and severely wounded by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in 2012 in Swat, Pakistan, read aloud Sotoda's letter in Washington, DC, on December 6.
"The longer schools and universities remain closed to girls, the more it will shade hope for [their] future," Sotodah wrote, according to Yousafzai.
"Girls' education is a powerful tool for bringing peace and security," added Yousafzai, reading the letter. "If girls don't learn, Afghanistan will suffer, too."
A voice for Afghan girls
Sotoda told Salaam Times on December 4 that she would continue to raise her voice in protest across the world so that Afghan girls can gain their right to education.
"I urge the international community to support education in Afghanistan," she said. "Many of our schools have been destroyed in wars, and students even do not have books to read."
"The international community must save the educational system from collapsing, so that Afghanistan can move forward," she added.
Good schools can build a good society, said Sotoda.
For the most part, secondary schools and public universities have remained closed to Afghan girls since the fall of the previous government in August.
The move has deprived millions of Afghan girls of their right to education, making Afghanistan the only country where girls may not go to school.
Gone are the days when women would watch, in silence, while their rights were being violated, Sotoda said.
"The restrictions on women and the closure of schools for them once again made me raise my voice, especially because of the pain that Afghan women are enduring," she added.
"A window of hope had finally opened for women to move forward, but it closed," she said. "I could not bear this suffering anymore, and I had to raise my voice."
Sotoda said that she was happy to see that her struggle was paying off.
"I feel that my struggle and the struggle of all ... Afghan girls have borne fruit, and the world has heard our voice," she added.
Women and girls make half of society. Without them, society is incomplete, she said.
Mohammad Ehsan Forotan, Sotoda's father, vowed to support his daughter and added that he was proud of her for helping the voice of Afghan girls reach the world.
"I am confident that there are many others like Sotoda in this country who can raise their voices if they have the opportunity," he said.
"Sotoda raised her voice on behalf of Afghan girls and showed to the world that Afghans are not terrorists but highly cultured people who can rise to the world stage," he added.
Afghan girls should not be abandoned
Other women's rights activists have urged the international community not to abandon Afghan girls.
The global community, especially the United States, should continue its support for Afghan women and girls as it did over the past two decades, said Hasiba Azimi, a women's rights activist in Herat.
"Afghan girls are in a very difficult situation and in dire need of support from the international community," she added.
"Afghan women and girls achieved much in different fields, including education, over the past 20 years," she said. "These achievements should not be lost with the closure of schools and universities."
The world should not ignore the injustice toward and betrayal of Afghan women and girls, Azimi said.
It is shameful to prevent girls from going to school in the 21st century, said Kawsar Atayee, a women's rights activist in Herat.
Girls go to schools and universities freely in every other Islamic country, but in Afghanistan, they are not allowed to do so under the name of Islam, she said.
The world should not turn its back on Afghan women and girls at a time when they are in dire need of support, even if it objects to the current government, she added.
It has been more than three months since girls have been forced to stay home like prisoners and not attend school, Atayee said.
"I call on the United Nations and countries that had a presence in Afghanistan in the last 20 years not to [abandon] Afghan girls," she said.
"Do whatever it takes so that girls can go back to schools and universities and ... can build their future."