Scholarships Help Afghan Women Pursue Higher Education
February 13, 2019
Women are seriously underrepresented in public life in Afghanistan, a situation that is intimately linked to their low levels of education.
According to the government’s 2017 Afghanistan Living Conditions Survey, the national literacy rate is 34.8 percent overall, meaning that there are about 9.9 million illiterate people age 15 or older in Afghanistan, 6 million of whom are women. But literacy and basic education will not be enough for Afghan women to overcome disadvantages accumulated over generations or to achieve positions of authority and leadership. In order for women to make inroads into public life—and especially to hold positions of authority—they need to get a higher education.
In a society where gender segregation is both commonplace and profound, women can generally reach other women more effectively than men can. Afghanistan needs female mentors and role models—teachers, health professionals, and community mobilizers—who can help women learn to exercise their most basic rights. But before this can happen, again, women must have a higher education. In 2016 there were 182,344 students in 36 government (public) universities across the country, of which 41,041—just 22.5 percent—were women. These numbers reveal the serious underrepresentation of women at Afghanistan’s universities, both public and private.
The situation at public universities is dire, since access to public higher education is very competitive and the rules are highly restrictive. Students must take the public university entrance exam, the Kankor. Preparatory courses for the exam, focusing on mathematics and science, are not free and are often costly, and they are generally conducted outside of the schools. Under the conservative cultural norms that restrict women’s mobility in Afghanistan, female students usually cannot attend these courses, and Afghan families often prefer to invest in the education of their sons, leaving daughters without the resources to pursue an education.
With a vision of a more egalitarian society, The Asia Foundation, with funds from USAID, provides a continuum of support to women and girls in Afghanistan. Through the USAID-funded Promote scholarship program for women, the Foundation helps eligible young women with academic potential from economically challenged families pursue higher education at national universities in Afghanistan and international universities in India. The scholarship program takes a holistic approach to women’s education, supporting girls from high school onwards with preparatory trainings, academic activities, and financial assistance.
As part of the Kankor preparation, the Foundation provides girls in grades 10–12 with Kankor guides, practice tests, and tablets on which they can take practice exams and identify areas for improvement. Local teachers are trained to work with the students. The Foundation currently provides support to 300 girls’ schools across Afghanistan, and Kankor test-prep activities and materials have so far reached over 70,000 female students. The activities are seamlessly integrated into daily classes and take place right in the schools, mitigating parents’ unwillingness to send daughters to private courses.
Because science and mathematics are heavily weighted in the Kankor examination, the Foundation offers additional training to science and mathematics teachers and provides equipment to school science laboratories. To promote general interest in science and math, the Foundation also helps organize regular science fairs with participation from parents and the community. These activities provide a more supportive environment for girls’ education and help motivate them to pursue a higher degree.
Currently, the Foundation also provides scholarships to 720 female students at 38 private universities across Afghanistan. These women scholars are now in the second and third years of bachelor’s programs in 23 provinces. The Foundation supplements their education with English-language and computer-literacy courses. Other aspects of the program include leadership training and internships so that scholars learn to set career goals and can enter the job market upon graduation.
For women to influence public policy and decision-making, however—to have a true voice in the important decisions of the country—they need to hold positions of leadership. Afghanistan needs a critical mass of women with international master’s degrees to challenge entrenched patriarchal norms and take on leadership roles. Mindful of this, in August 2018 the Foundation awarded graduate scholarships to 150 women to pursue master’s degrees in India. The scholarship recipients are currently enrolled at 13 “A-grade” accredited universities and are pursuing a wide array of graduate programs including international relations, journalism, public administration, technology, education, agriculture, psychology, business administration, economics, and many others. An education in a multicultural and multireligious society like India will broaden these scholars’ horizons and expand their vision of a peaceful and harmonious society. Upon their return, the Foundation hopes they will eventually become leaders and change agents, contributing to greater gender equality and women’s empowerment in Afghanistan.
Through the Promote scholarships, the Foundation continues its work to improve the lives of women in Afghanistan. At a recent ceremony at the Ministry of Higher Education in Kabul, scholarship recipients from every corner of the country attested to the life-changing support and opportunities afforded to them by USAID and the Foundation. According to Khalidah, a bachelor’s student from Takhar province, “scholarships for women and access to higher education will help reduce gender-based discrimination in Afghanistan.” Hasina, from Kandahar, said that her Promote scholarship “enabled me to overcome the despair of not having the opportunity or the financial means to pursue higher education.” And for Walia, an economics student from Kunduz province, the Promote program has “turned the dreams of many Afghan women into realities.”
Razia Stanikzai is deputy director of education programs and Jose Ramos is a program development specialist for The Asia Foundation in Afghanistan. They can be reached at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org, respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.
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