Mass Sickness of Afghan Schoolgirls Raises Poisoning Fears

Since April 21, at least eighty Afghan schoolgirls at three schools in the increasingly violent northern city of Kunduz have mysteriously fallen ill after reporting a strange smell in their classrooms. Most of the affected girls have been hospitalized briefly and released, but the sudden, mysterious epidemic of fainting and nausea is raising fears of poisoning by opponents of girls’ education.

“I was in class when a smell like a flower reached my nose,” Sumaila, 12, told Reuters. “I saw my classmates and my teacher collapse and when I opened my eyes I was in hospital.”

The Afghan government has blamed “enemies of Afghanistan,” code for the Taliban and affiliated militant groups. One Taliban faction released a statement denying responsibility for the suspected chemical attack.

While blood tests from the affected schoolgirls have been inconclusive so far, this is not the first suspected poisoning of schoolgirls in recent years. In 2009, dozens of schoolgirls in Kapisa province were hospitalized with similar symptoms, and, in an attack that elicited international outrage the previous year, fifteen female students in Kandahar were sprayed with acid as they walked to school.

A study of nearly 700 attacks on schools in Afghanistan released by the aid organization CARE International in November 2009 found the education of girls to be the most significant risk factor for violent targeting by militant groups.