Gender gaps in higher education across Central Asia

Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the geopolitical region of Central Asia was reorganised into five independent states – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Central Asia spans over four million square kilometres and has a combined population of approximately 70 million people.

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

Although the region shares some similarities, there are many differences as a result of diverse geopolitical and cultural contexts.

In tertiary education, Central Asia may be the only world region where rates of female participation both markedly exceed the world average of 50% and fall well below that figure.

Women in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are more likely than men to enter tertiary education, whereas fewer than 40% of their neighbours in Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are studying at this level.

Yet this is not a static situation. In Tajikistan, the proportion of women accessing tertiary education has increased by nearly 10% since the turn of the century whereas Uzbekistan is witnessing a gradual decline in female enrolment. Why?

The Soviet mask

The Central Asian nations have a shared history of being republics of the Soviet Union for most of the 20th century, the impact of which was deep and far-reaching.

Soviet rule brought formal tertiary education to the region for the first time and left a legacy of near universal literacy rates and an extensive, if over-centralised, comprehensive system of education in each country.

Female participation in tertiary education expanded in all of the countries, although even by 1960 there were more women enrolled in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan than Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, a pattern that has remained constant since the countries gained independence in 1991.

Now that the nominally equalising mask of the Soviet era has been lifted, differences between the countries are becoming more noticeable.


Since 1991, the Central Asian countries have experienced quite different economic trajectories.

Kazakhstan has the highest gross national income or GNI per capita of the region – just under US$12,000 in 2014, more than 10 times higher than Tajikistan where female participation in tertiary education has historically been the lowest.

However, Kyrgyzstan disrupts this pattern: GNI per capita is nine times less than Kazakhstan’s with the same proportion of women in tertiary education.

And while it is very difficult to say much about Turkmenistan, a notoriously closed country reporting only one data point of 39%, it’s still notable that this comparatively low rate of female participation is against a GNI per capita six times higher than Kyrgyzstan’s.

And in Uzbekistan, with the same rate of female participation as in Turkmenistan, GNI per capita is nearly four times lower than its closed neighbour.

This suggests that wealth does not necessarily make a difference, or if it does then it must be in conjunction with other issues.

Structural inequalities

In Uzbekistan, reforms in 2005 and 2009 mean that students must now move from school to vocational colleges or lyceums from the age of 16.

According to Albina Yun, an Uzbekistani higher education researcher, this policy is geared towards meeting labour market needs and has led to an overall decline in enrolment rates.

The reforms have particularly affected women who, on leaving college at around the age of 18 or 19, are already considered to have a ‘profession’ that does not require them to continue in education. Socio-cultural norms compound the pressure on women not to study but to marry.

Ways of life

Dr Aksana Ismailbekova , an anthropologist from Kyrgyzstan, has examined marriage traditions among ethnic Kazakhs and Kyrgyz.

She notes that in both countries’ nomadic culture, men and women share equal rights and should share the contributions to the household. A more educated woman has greater employment opportunities and possibilities to financially contribute to the household.

In contrast, Ismailbekova suggests that the different marriage strategy in the sedentary culture more prevalent amongst ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks is connected to lower rates of female participation in tertiary education.

It is harder for highly educated women to get married given the greater cultural acceptance of gendered norms where women remain at home and look after children and the house while men are the main breadwinners.

Disparities within countries

A 2012 United Nations Development Programme report on Uzbekistan also pointed to gendered upbringings and parental expectations, as well as an urban-rural divide in the distribution of tertiary education as possible reasons for the difference between countries.

It is true that enrolment rates are not uniform within the countries, although this may not simply be about urban-rural differences.

One striking exception can be observed in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region of eastern Tajikistan, also known as the Pamirs, where female participation is fully 50% higher than the national average – that is, at the same rate seen in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

The majority of those living in the Pamirs are Ismaili Shia Muslims, with a living spiritual leader who places great emphasis on the importance of education.

The paradox of Tajikistan

It is not just regional disparity that creates a paradoxical situation in Tajikistan.

Around one in every seven Tajikistanis, mostly men, currently work abroad. According to a researcher from Tajikistan who asked to remain anonymous, in these cases responsibility for the economic and social wellbeing of the family falls mainly on women. Significant numbers of girls are leaving school with an incomplete secondary education.

Further, the introduction of tuition fees – a pattern seen across Central Asia – and persistently high levels of corruption – such as paying for admission and paying for grades – leads to reluctance on the part of some less well-off families to send girls into tertiary education.

There are also major concerns in the country about the diminishing quality of tertiary education and subsequent lack of employment opportunities.

And yet, despite these many mounting pressures, female enrolment in Tajikistan is growing: if current trends continue, gender parity could be achieved within the next decade. Further research is needed to fully explore both causes and consequences of the pressured situation for many Tajikistani women.

Where do we go from here?

The factors behind these varying trends are complex and shifting.

This article has only been able to highlight a few of the possible explanations behind the gender gap in tertiary education in Central Asia. But by bringing this understudied part of the world to the forefront, the aim is to generate greater dialogue and attention both to the issues raised and to the region itself.

Emma Sabzalieva is a PhD student in the Centre for the Study of Canadian and International Higher Education at the University of Toronto, Canada. She researches the politics of higher education and social change in Central Asia.