The young Afghan women on the plane that touched down at Almaty airport in Kazakhstan were all eager to start an exciting new chapter in their lives.
They had come from all over Afghanistan, including the remote and rural areas, to take part in a study abroad scholarship programme.
They began their stay in Kazakhstan with an eight-month English course, which will prepare them to go on next year to further study in Kazakhstan universities. Some are attending university for the first time, others are pursuing advanced degrees.
“This is the most beautiful moment of my life, an excellent opportunity to fulfill my dream of becoming an economist,” said Jamila.
With the support of the European Union, UNDP has begun an initiative to allow Afghan women to study in neighbouring Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
Most Afghanis are under the age of 24 and good jobs are rare because job creation has been overtaken by population growth.
The initiative aims to provide educational opportunities for Afghan women, who face far greater barriers than men to education and employment.
“Making sure girls and women get quality education is a key priority for the EU and at the core of the new EU Central Asia Strategy and the EU Afghanistan Strategy. We should recognize now and always, that gender equality and empowerment of women and girls are not only fundamental human rights but also smart policy,” said Raffaella Iodice, Head of Unit, Middle East, Central Asia, South Asia, European Commission.
These young women are determined to make the most of their new chances.
“This scholarship is a rebirth to take my life into my own hands and achieve the ambitious goals I set for myself. I’m sure that if I graduate from this university or any other university in Kazahkstan I will become someone who will have an ability to work anywhere,” said Freshta.
According to the 2018 UNDP Human Development Report, only 11 percent of all Afghan women have reached secondary education and only 19.5 percent are employed, while these numbers are 37 percent and 87 percent for men, respectively. In 2016–2017, more than half of Afghans lived below the poverty line.
Educating women and girls is a powerful way to reverse poverty and all that’s associated with it, such as poor health and education, and early marriage.
“Very often lack of education deprives women of decision-making roles in our societies. I want to use my chance to study, grow as a professional and make sure women’s voices are fully heard in Afghanistan,” said Khatera. She hopes to return with the right skills and experience to contribute to her country.
UNDP will support the women when they return as part of an on-going effort to create decent jobs and start businesses.
“Women are key contributors to the growth of their national economies. Despite their significant contributions to society, women’s work is often unmonetized, and they lack equal access to education, decent work and equal pay,” said UNDP Deputy Regional Director Agi Veres. “We’re proud to support countries in designing economic policies and strategies that take into consideration the differentiated needs and contributions of women, and which address gender-based disparities in access to services and resources.”
The European Union provided a €2 million grant for the initiative, which will be implemented by UNDP over seven years. Fifty students will study for Bachelor’s, Master’s and technical degrees in agriculture, applied statistics and mining at academic establishments across Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The university education will be complemented by summer schools on entrepreneurship and networking, supported by UN Women. “We are confident that this training will be expanding economic opportunities and choices for the Afghan women and thus contribute to better livelihoods,” said Dagmar Schumacher, Director, UN Women Brussels Office.
In their time abroad these women expect to work hard, make new friends and experience different cultures and then bring their newfound skills and confidence back to benefit their communities and families in Afghanistan.
“I really want to be an entrepreneurial person in my own country and make jobs for the women who want to be free and stand on their own feet. The chance to study empowers me in a male-dominated society,” said Fatima.
Story and photos by UNDP Kazakhstan