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Carnegie Corporation’s Vartan Gregorian: Transforming Afghan Women’s Lives through Education

May 4, 2016

By Blog Editor

VartanGregorianOn May 11, The Asia Foundation will host its sixth annual Lotus Leadership Awards Gala in New York City, honoring First Lady of Afghanistan, Rula Ghani, and Carnegie Corporation of New York and its president, Vartan Gregorian, for their efforts to improve the quality of life for women and girls in Afghanistan. The evening gala is a platform for advancing the rights and opportunities of girls and women, and proceeds support The Asia Foundation’s work to empower women across Asia. In the lead-up to the event, Eelynn Sim, the Foundation’s associate director of Global Communications, spoke with Gregorian about his commitment to education, the Corporation’s scholarship programs, and why investing in Afghan women is a critical step toward ensuring peace in the region.

Research shows that women are the catalyst for positive changes in society, and that giving girls access to education, for example, leads to a range of benefits that reach far beyond the individual woman. What are your thoughts on this?

Women are the seeds of civilization. My illiterate grandmother instilled in me the value of education and the belief that women are the primary source of transformation of civilization and culture in our societies. At the same time, women often carry the burden of being mothers, housewives, and professionals. Their education is equally important as that of men. In some traditional cultures, it’s seen as taboo for women to seek education or attend school. In these cases, boys are the only ones whose education is supported. As a result, society deprives itself of its greatest treasure, a whole generation of women, pillars of society who aren’t able to access education and the opportunities it avails.

When you educate a woman, you educate a whole generation. Through education, they are gaining independence and self-sufficiency, as well as the ability to become future leaders. This is the reason I have spent decades promoting women’s education, particularly at the college level, with a special preference for women who are going into science, engineering, and other similar fields of endeavor. This is especially important in places such as sub-Saharan Africa and Afghanistan where the number of universities is limited.

In your seminal work on the history of Afghanistan, “The Emergence of Modern Afghanistan,” you show us a vivid picture of a country seeking to establish itself as a modern, reforming nation. Much has happened since. Today, illiteracy and lack of education and rights remain the biggest problems for Afghan women. What is your view on the status of women in Afghanistan today?

Carnegie Corporation is investing in Afghan women because advancing their education is an important milestone in the country’s growth and progress. One of the chapters in my book focuses on the history and struggle of women’s education in Afghanistan under the auspices of King Amanullah, Zahir Shah, and later President Daoud and subsequent governments. Higher education was a great luxury at the time, but that has changed. In 2001, there were less than one million students in school, and only a very few were girls. Today there are more than 8.3 million students in school, and 39 percent of them are girls. But still the numbers are not as high as they should be. Modern society demands educated and cultured professionals, experts, and leaders, and sooner or later, all countries have to not only accept this but promote women’s rights and equal access if they’re going to see progress, prosperity, and equality.

In October 2012, with a $1-million grant from Carnegie Corporation, The Asia Foundation announced a new initiative, Carnegie Corporation Scholarships for Afghan Women. Can you share what motivated you to start this scholarship program?

Several years ago, current President Ashraf Ghani informed me that Afghanistan needed support for higher education and libraries. And so, at Carnegie Corporation, we did three things to support the country’s development: We provided a roof for Kabul Library at Kabul University; we helped build back the libraries, many of which had been destroyed during conflict; and the Corporation gifted a collection of digitized treasures to libraries and universities – books, maps, photographs, historical knowledge – from the holdings of the Library of Congress. Subsequently, the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council, headed by Laura Bush, contacted me specifically about women’s education and how critical it is to the country’s ability to succeed, and so we decided to support women’s education there, as well. Afghanistan has had many setbacks in its modern history. This has led to so much waste of human resources and material resources, and hindered potential growth. I am glad that Afghanistan now has access to the internet, better communication, and roads, with so much to explore.

The progress of a developing country like Afghanistan cannot be guaranteed without increasing education and opportunities for women. Women with a university education can take their place alongside educated men in accelerating progress and growing a new generation of critical thinkers. For that reason, your women’s scholarship program is both timely and crucial for the future of Afghanistan. When the Taliban regime fell in late 2001, Afghan women had one of the highest illiteracy rates in the world – only 10 percent of Afghan women could read and write. Our scholarships benefit Afghan women from diverse backgrounds, including geographic regions where women are less likely to have access to higher education due to financial constraints, enabling them to gain university degrees at both public and private institutions in Afghanistan. These are life-changing opportunities and make all the difference. These exceptional women are enrolled in a wide range of disciplines, from law and political science, to business and computer science. While still undergraduate students, some are already working as teaching assistants and NGO program assistants.

And why was The Asia Foundation the right partner for Carnegie and working on the ground in Afghanistan?

The Asia Foundation and I go back to when I was a graduate student at Stanford University. Today, your president, David Arnold, is leading a vibrant, mission-driven organization that works well with other organizations on important global issues. In Afghanistan, I know you are respected for approaching pressing challenges in partnership with the Afghan government and citizens, focusing closely on governance and education to address economic and social needs. In my view, together we are empowering inspiring, self-reliant individuals and institutions –through knowledge – so that they are able to tackle the complex development challenges of their country and their region.

We’re thrilled to honor you at the Lotus Leadership Award Gala on May 11 in New York. Why should New Yorkers and the philanthropic community in the U.S. care about this international issue of women’s education?

Because supporting fragile societies such as Afghanistan will help bring peace and stability to the region. Fostering peaceful civil societies in troubled corners of the world requires leaders, doers, thinkers, and peacemakers. The best peacemakers are women, and that’s another reason why supporting women is a smart investment.

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