Could the Indian government help Afghan women pursue higher education?

On December 20, 2022, the Taliban government announced the suspension of university education for all women in Afghanistan. All universities, public and private, have been ordered to ban the admission of female students. This is a serious violation of women’s dignity and their right to higher education.

For Afghan women like me (Shakila) who aspire to university education, this came as a severe shock. Although women’s rights have steadily deteriorated since the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, my classmates and I never expected it. In our journey so far, of which many of us are first-generation learners, we have not only overcome social, psychological and economic barriers, but we have also overcome extremely traumatic incidents. I vividly remember the day I feigned death for two hours, lying between the dead and injured to save myself when my town was attacked by a non-state armed group. We have recovered from such incidents with the help of supportive networks in our schools and universities. Denying women access to universities denies us access to these positive coping mechanisms.

Individuals benefit directly and significantly from higher education. In South Asia, according to the World Bank, the average labor market return for higher education is higher than for any other level of education and was estimated in 2014 at 23.3% for women and 16.6% for men. Improved earning potential for women brings not only material benefits and economic independence, but also non-monetary benefits such as improved individual and family health, which have a positive impact on generations.

The education of women was seen as a shining example for the reconstruction of Afghanistan. Over the past two decades, the enrollment and participation of women and girls has increased not only in primary and secondary education, but also in higher education. In recent years, women’s participation in college entrance exams has steadily increased and, despite all the obstacles, women have recently been leading the entrance exams as well. However, the recent ban will reverse much of the hard-won progress.

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An urgent need

Immediately following the Taliban’s announcement of the decree, the Indian government expressed its concern for the women of Afghanistan and denounced the de facto authority’s decision to stop it, stating that India was “consistently committed to the cause of women’s education used in Afghanistan”.

While it was encouraging to see the Indian government voicing their concerns, it is important to note that they are well positioned to respond to the new situation. This could be achieved by ensuring continued access to higher education for Afghan women through the online bachelor’s and master’s programs of their private and public open universities, particularly the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU).

Through IGNOU, the world’s largest open university, India already offers online bachelor’s, master’s and certificate programs for international students. This is an opportunity some Afghan women can seize without risking their lives.

According to IGNOU, Afghan women and men are charged reduced course fees because Afghanistan is a South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) country. However, due to ongoing banking restrictions in Afghanistan, Afghan women are unable to make international payments to IGNOU for these graduate and postgraduate programs. The Government of India can solve this problem by providing scholarships to Afghan women who are interested in these online courses. Thus, while there may be other technological and language barriers, a significant number of women in Afghanistan would be able to pursue higher education either on their own or with support from humanitarian and development agencies in Afghanistan.

With admissions for these online programs occurring in January and July 2023, the immediate availability of scholarships will meet the urgent needs of many Afghan women who have been pushed out of universities. If this were done, India would regain some of the goodwill it lost in the Afghan student community when it recently rejected e-visas from Afghan students enrolled in Indian universities. At this moment of crisis for Afghan women, India can be a beacon of hope.

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Shakila was a student in Afghanistan until the de facto government enacted the ban on women from college.

Ali Amiri is a former Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS) Development Worker and currently a researcher in the field of psychology.

Siddharth Pillai is a former Prime Minister Rural Development Fellow (Government of India) and currently directs Education in Emergencies (EiE) programs in Afghanistan.