Thousands more university places set aside for women

The Afghan government said it will earmark up to 7,000 additional seats for women in public sector universities across the country in a bid to encourage higher participation, according to an announcement last week by the ministry of education.

As hundreds of thousands of Afghan students sit for the ‘Kankur’ university entrance exams starting mid-March, the ministry said in addition to the normal university admissions for women based on Kankur results and special scholarships for women, 6,850 more seats have been reserved for women entering universities in the new academic year starting later this month.

Following the fall of the Taliban regime 17 years ago, the war-ravaged country has witnessed significant progress towards female education although it is still hampered by social, economic and security constraints. Women currently make up just under 30% of the country’s 300,000 students enrolled in public and private higher education institutions, up from an average of 19% between 2005 and 2014, mainly due to a shortage of hostel places for women.

Establishing women’s hostels on campus and developing dedicated kindergartens in all universities is an area the Afghan government is keen on, to encourage families to allow women and girls to study in a secure and sustainable environment.

“We want to evolve the development of kindergartens in universities as a culture,” Arefa Pekar, spokesperson for the ministry of higher education, said, adding: “We can only succeed in strengthening the presence of women and girls in academic institutions when all their basic needs are met and there is social assurance to them. We would ensure that all universities obey this as a binding labour law across the country.”

Leadership positions

Under the leadership of President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani, a former World Bank economist, the government is pursuing a comprehensive plan for social equality in the country’s educational system, which includes at least 20% of the leadership positions at academic institutions to be held by women and girls by the year 2020.

As part of the ministry’s incentive programme for women and girls, 20 female leaders will be selected for key positions such as university chancellor, vice-chancellor and other positions in the upcoming year, Pekar said. “We are striving to strengthen the presence of women even as chancellors and vice-chancellors in the country.”

The government is working to increase the number of women faculty members, who currently make up just 14% of faculty. The main bottleneck is lack of postgraduate qualifications among women lecturers.

Pekar said 321 Afghan women were sent abroad on government scholarships to study for undergraduate, postgraduate and PhD degrees last year, while 713 others were provided with scholarships to study at public universities across the country for postgraduate courses.

Human Rights Watch noted in a report that despite loud claims, the stated aim of getting all girls into school in Afghanistan is far from being realised, highlighting that the proportion of students who are women is actually falling in parts of the country. It underlined that 3.5 million children are out of school, 85% of them girls.

The 132-page report released in October I Won’t Be a Doctor, and One Day You’ll Be Sick: Girls’ access to education in Afghanistan, said growing insecurity, poverty and displacement were the main factors contributing to dropouts and falling rates of enrolments.

Kamal Sadaat, deputy minister for youth affairs at the ministry of information and culture, told University World News that the government was striving to address these issues, acknowledging that the country’s security situation is the main obstacle.

He added that the government is encouraging the private sector to play a role, and has signed a memorandum of understanding with 34 private institutions of higher education under which 9,500 women who could not afford to study will be supported with bursaries to continue their education.