HERAT -- More than two years after the authorities ordered schools and universities to close their doors to girls and women, rights activists warn of the long-term consequences to Afghanistan.
Withholding education from girls and women can lead to continued severe economic problems and an escalation of insecurity and conflicts in the country, they say.
Terrorist groups, including the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" Khorasan branch (ISIS-K), could also exploit this situation to expand their presence in Afghanistan, given the lack of literacy among future generations.
"Illiterate mothers cannot raise their children in a manner that benefits society," said Sadiqa Rahmati, a women's rights activist in Herat province.
"Consequently, a significant number of their sons may grow up illiterate and become vulnerable to recruitment by terrorist and extremist groups," she said.
"Most members of terrorist groups such as ISIS grew up in illiterate and poor families and joined these groups unknowingly," she said.
"On the other hand, educated mothers who raise their children in a proper manner will never be willing to engage in extremism and terrorist activities."
If educational institutions do not swiftly open their doors to women and girls, this situation could result in significant long-term problems and potentially escalate conflicts in the country, Rahmati warned.
Nazifa Karimi, 17, was an 11th grade student in Herat two years ago when she was forced to abandon her studies.
With the continued closure of her school, her family arranged for her to marry her cousin three months ago.
"I was never happy with this marriage, and I wanted to study and contribute to the building of Afghanistan," she said. "With the closure of the schools, all my dreams were shattered, and if the schools reopen, my husband will not allow me to study."
"I wanted to attend university after high school, become an educated woman, raise my children properly and contribute to their education," Karimi added. "Unfortunately, my dreams were shattered, and I may not be able to prepare my children to contribute to the country."
Education key to countering terrorism
As concerns rise about the continued exclusion of women and girls from education, ISIS-K has been recruiting illiterate and unemployed youth in some parts of Afghanistan, particularly in remote areas of the northern provinces, according to local sources.
Mohammad Naim Ghayur, an Afghan military analyst based in Italy, said illiterate youth easily fall into the clutches of terrorist groups.
"Women play a fundamental role in the upbringing of their children," he said. "Educated women raise educated children, contributing to society. However, illiterate women are kept marginalized within families and have no say in any decision. They either have little influence in the upbringing of their sons or are unable to help because of their lack of education."
The more educated women there are in society, the more the society develops, curbing the spread of extremism and the activities of terrorist groups, he said.
"There are more extremism and radicalism in provinces where schools remained closed for most of the past 20 years," Ghayur said. "In provinces where education and knowledge progressed and both girls' and boys' schools were open, there have been fewer signs of extremism and conflict."
The exclusion of women and girls from education lowers the overall literacy rate in society, leading young people away from education and towards extremist and terrorist groups, said Maryam Sofizada, a civil society activist in Herat city.
"An educated and knowledgeable mother raises an educated and knowledgeable man," she said. "It is evident that most members of terrorist groups like ISIS come from areas where schools have been closed and women have been unable to receive proper education."
"To eradicate terrorist groups in Afghanistan, it is essential to open all educational institutions to women and girls as soon as possible," Sofizada said. "Restricting women from acquiring knowledge is an unwarranted and irrational action, like shooting yourself in the foot."
Depriving women and girls of education hinders the progress and development of society as a whole, she added.
A dark future
Fawzia Karokhi, a women's rights activist in Herat province, also envisions a bleak future for Afghanistan as women and girls continue to be deprived of their basic rights.
"In a country where half of the population cannot read or access education, its future appears grim and uncertain," she said.
"When a mother, sister or wife in a family is illiterate, the children in that family will never be raised properly. Depriving women and girls of education leaves the future generations of Afghanistan illiterate and leads them toward self-destruction," she said.
"The consequences of the current situation will become apparent in a few years, and Afghans will pay a heavy price for it," Karokhi warned.
To save Afghanistan from this crisis and an uncertain future, educational opportunities must be provided to women and girls as soon as possible, she added.
Nasima Hamdard, another civil society activist in Herat, stressed that education for both women and men is the sole salvation for Afghanistan from extremism and misfortune.
"Women and girls have greater potential than men in many areas, and with access to education, they can play a significant role in Afghanistan's future," she said. "Depriving them of education hinders their potential achievements and wastes their talents."
"Men, without help from women, cannot single-handedly save Afghanistan from these challenges and crises," Hamdard said. "Over the past two years, as women's roles in social activities have diminished, it is evident that the country's situation is becoming increasingly critical and challenging."