Central Asian Universities Enrolling Afghan Women Amid Taliban College Ban
Image: UNDP Kazakhstan
(RFE.RL) With the Taliban government banning women from attending universities in Afghanistan, an EU-funded project is being revived to bring dozens of Afghan girls to study in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan.
More than 100 Afghan girls who were awarded five-year scholarships are already in the host countries to begin their studies, the organizers said.
The project to help empower Afghan women was initially launched in 2019, when a Western-backed government was still in power in Kabul.
The initiative aims to provide Afghan women an opportunity to study abroad and have better career opportunities when they return home as skilled professionals.
In its first phase, the project granted full scholarships to 50 girls to study in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan through 2025.
Participants for the second phase of the program were selected just months before the hard-line Taliban returned to power in Kabul in August 2021, throwing the future of both the project and the students into disarray.
The Taliban-led government has since banned girls' education after primary school and prohibited women from attending university. Women have also been excluded from many workplaces and banned from working for nongovernmental organizations.
Despite the Taliban’s stance on women’s education and work, the project organizers have managed to bring the 105 second-phase participants to Central Asia.
Sources told RFE/RL that the Kazakh Foreign Ministry played a crucial role in “negotiating with all sides” to arrange the women’s trip from Afghanistan.
The UN Development Fund (UNDP) office in Kazakhstan, which runs the project, told RFE/RL on January 27 that Kazakh universities will host 50 of the students. Thirty others will study in Uzbekistan, and 25 in Kyrgyzstan, it said.
The women are expected to complete their studies in 2027.
The EU has allocated some $5.5 million for the academic project’s first and second stages. It’s not yet known if the program will continue beyond that.
Asked about the future of the project considering the current situation in Afghanistan, the UNDP in Kazakhstan said, “key decisions, including a potential expansion, is a subject for close consultations with the donor.”
Contacted by RFE/RL on January 26, the Taliban-led government’s chief spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said he wasn’t aware of any agreement being reached between the officials in Kabul and the host countries or other parties involved in the project.
Mujahid said he would respond after discussing the issue with Afghan education officials and other relevant authorities, but had not done so as of the time this article was published.
What Does the Future Hold?
If the program goes according to plan, the 155 students in Central Asia will receive diplomas in fields ranging from agriculture, finance, and mining, to engineering, marketing, and computer science.
When it was first launched, project organizers envisaged that the women would return to Afghanistan as highly skilled specialists to help build up both their communities and their country.
With the Taliban in power, the women are unlikely to find work and a career when they go back to Afghanistan. Some of them may not want to return, fearing security risks and other hardships associated with living in an isolated country where women’s rights are severely curtailed.
The UNDP said “the final decision to return to Afghanistan remains at each graduate’s discretion.”
“An intention to return to [Afghanistan] is indeed encouraged by UNDP, but in no way requested as per the principles of do-no-harm,” the agency told RFE/RL.
“The program organizers must think about what these girls will do once they finish their studies,” says Barna Kargar, an Afghan woman who graduated from the Almaty University of Power Engineering and Telecommunications in 2021.
The 25-year-old native of Afghanistan’s Balkh Province received her diploma in the same month as the Western-backed government collapsed in Kabul. She changed her plans to return home and decided to stay in Kazakhstan.
Kargar says her life has been in limbo ever since. Her request for asylum in Kazakhstan has been rejected, leaving her with no legal right to live and work in the country.
“Too scared to go back to Afghanistan,” Kargar has appealed the court decision. Kargar is not a participant in the EU-funded project, but arrived in Kazakhstan with a scholarship from the former Afghan government in 2016.
“Afghanistan today is not a safe place for a woman who has studied in a foreign, modern country, and plans to have a career,” Kargar said.
Authorities in Kazakhstan and the other Central Asian host countries have not said whether they would offer asylum or other forms of residency if needed by the Afghan students once they graduate.
In Kabul, 23-year-old Rahila Yusafzai says she read online about the resumption of the program for Afghan girls to study in Central Asia.
Fluent in English, Yusafzai is keen to get a university education abroad and constantly searches for scholarships, grants, and other opportunities being offered to Afghan women.
“So many [female Afghan] students have had their studies cut short after the Taliban banned them from [attending university] last month. I hope there will be at least some scholarship programs for them to study abroad,” she told RFE/RL.
“We shouldn’t worry too much about what will happen after they graduate,” Yusafzai said. “Many things might happen, many things could change [in the next] five or six years.”