Insights and Analysis

Education a ‘Beacon of Hope’ in Afghanistan

December 7, 2016

By Razia Stanikzai

Education in Afghanistan has historically mirrored the ups and downs of the socio-political upheavals in the country. However, the Afghan people’s demand for quality education, their efforts to ensure greater access, and their belief in education as a transformative force has been unwavering, and is especially true today.

In 2015, over 9.2 million students (39 percent female) attended schools, with local school shuras (community-led decision-making bodies) playing a key role in driving this nine-fold increase since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Despite today’s deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, schools continue to serve as beacons of hope for Afghan people. In The Asia Foundation’s just-released 2016 Survey of Afghan People, newly opened schools for girls rank fourth in a list of 10 reasons why Afghan people think that their country is moving in the right direction. This reflects the public conviction that education positively changes the trajectory of children’s lives, expands their opportunities, and has the potential to enable them to find jobs and integrate into mainstream society in the future.

Afghanistan students

In 2015, over 9.2 million students (39 percent female) attended schools. Despite today’s deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, schools continue to serve as beacons of hope for Afghan people. Photo/Jon Jamieson

Among the many benefits of education is the opportunity it affords for economic advancement. This is particularly relevant now as Afghanistan’s economy is further challenged. One of the top reasons people are pessimistic in Afghanistan is due to unemployment. Educationally marginalized Afghans tend to be further economically disadvantaged, as the survey results suggest. A positive correlation (stronger for Afghan women compared to men) exists between the respondent’s education and income level. Among Afghans who report having some level of formal schooling, 56.6 percent say they earn an income, compared to 35.2 percent of Afghans who stated they never attended formal school. Among Afghan women who report some level of formal education, 16.6 percent are employed, compared to those with no formal education of which 6.1 percent were employed. Similarly, Afghans who report higher levels of education tend to report higher monthly household income than those reporting no formal schooling. The largest differences were seen among those reporting a university education, particularly those living in urban areas.

Literacy is another barometer of development. When asked about the biggest problems facing women in their area, the most frequent response was education/illiteracy (36.1 percent). I have heard many times from illiterate men and women that being illiterate is analogous to being blind. The analogy makes sense in a place like Afghanistan, where illiterate parents have a much harder time supporting their children’s education, or maintaining a meaningful dialogue with the school on classroom performance, for example.

For women, education is even more critical in combating social, economic, and political marginalization. According to the World Bank, estimates of adult women’s literacy rates across Afghanistan vary from 17 percent to 24 percent nationwide. However, national averages disguise the grave disparities among provinces. UNESCO reports that women in Kabul have a literacy rate of 34.7 percent, while women in Helmand, a more insecure and culturally conservative province, have a literacy rate of just 1.6 percent. Male literacy is estimated at 68 percent in Kabul and 41 percent in Helmand.

The findings reveal deep-seated conservative attitudes about women’s mobility and families’ concern for the security of young women away from their home province. While most Afghans agree that women can be educated in an Islamic madrasa (93.6 percent) and in primary school (86.1 percent), nearly half of respondents disapprove of a woman studying outside her home province (58.1 percent of men and 46.9 percent of women) or studying abroad (69.4% of men and 57.2% of women). For university education within a woman’s home province, more women (76.5 percent) than men (67.6 percent) favor equal access.

The survey findings, however, do present a positive picture when it comes to access to higher education and youth rights. Lack of higher education opportunities was a more common concern in 2015 (15.3 percent) than this year (7.9 percent). Many organizations have contributed to this positive change in perception. For example, The Asia Foundation’s Promote Scholarship Project provides access to over 900 women to pursue a university degree at the bachelor and master’s level at the private universities. This year, 236 young women from 30 provinces have been enrolled in private universities after successfully going through an open merit-based process with one of the prominent criteria requiring applicants to be from families facing economic hardship. If private universities in their province did not meet the program criteria, the women attend universities in the nearest provinces where they live. These scholarships provide opportunities to unlock their intellectual potential and offer experiences that will enable them to be the future leaders.

Recently, the National Unity Government (NUG) and its development partners have shifted focus from just expanding access to education to strengthening education quality. Several reforms have been implemented, including knowledge assessments for different grades, technical and vocational education and training reforms, and the approval of a National Education Strategic Plan (2014–2020). The Ministry of Education is also exploring community-based education to expand educational programs by using community homes as schools and improving capacity among local parents to be teachers. It’s our hope that efforts like these, combined with the determination Afghans share to succeed and overcome obstacles, that education can lead the country on a more positive path forward.

Razia Stanikzai is the deputy director for Education for The Asia Foundation in Afghanistan. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.


  1. A very good snapshot of education situation in Afghanistan. The article captures the components, achievement and pitfall of education including access and quality measures. It is commonly agreed that government has paid far more attention to access then quality of education which I called sweet and salty dimensions. I believe achieving quality results is a major undertake by the government and development partners that can be realized through the implementation of new strategy. The foundation MoE restructuring project is a vehicle to align the new strategy with structure and system so the set targets can be more attainable in the next 5 years.

  2. Very interesting article. It should also be mentioned that efforts to improve the quality of education include the coming implementation of a Teacher Credentialing System mentioned in NESP III. Such a competency-based and all inclusive system can do a lot to improve the quality of basic education. Researches evidence that teachers are the key variable that make a difference in education. The Credentialing System developed for Afghanistan suggests to work with all the teachers in government schools and CBE schools and classes to provide them with the opportunity to improve their pedagogical skills through the acquisition of six basic competencies. Furthermore, the System will help professionalize teaching. All teachers are needed and all teachers want to be better teachers as the piloting of the Credentialing System evidenced. Education is instrumental in the development of Afghanistan and teachers are instrumental in quality education.

  3. “Educate a girl empower a nation”
    Great achievement in women education in post war and post conflict country like Afghanistan in short period of time.
    The approach through local school shuras (community-led decision-making bodies) is an effective way to involve local in the process of women education . To bring changes we need to work along with respecting the Afghan social values . What you are doing now will have constructive and positive social – economical outcome in long term.
    @ Education a ‘Beacon of Hope’ in Afghanistan
    December 7, 2016
    By Razia Stanikzai

  4. An insightful article, and hopeful one. It challenges the common perception in the U.S. that Afghani families, particularly those who are living in rural areas and may lack formal education, do not want their children educated. And it highlights the long journey to change, particularly for women. The metaphor of illiteracy as the equivalent of being blind is a powerful one, but I also think this metaphor is true for efforts to solve complex social problems like literacy and women’s education when they are not designed and driven by Afghani experts and leaders themselves. Which underscores the importance of initiatives like the Asia Foundation’s Promote Scholarship Project. By impacting hundreds of women now able to pursue a university degree at the bachelor and master’s level, meaningful change is sure to happen. Kudos to Ms. Stanikzai and the Asia Foundation for this critical work.

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