Could the Government of India Help Afghan Women Continue their Higher Education?

If it offered them scholarships for IGNOU's online courses, the government would live up to the concern it expressed last month when the Taliban banned university education for female students.

On December 20, 2022, the Taliban administration announced the suspension of university education for all women in Afghanistan. All public and private universities were directed to ban the entry of female students. This is a profound violation of the dignity of women and their right to tertiary education.

For Afghan women pursuing university education like me (Shakila), this came as a rude shock. While there has been a continuous deterioration of the rights of women ever since the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, my classmates and I had never expected this. In our journey so far, many of us being first generation learners, we have not only overcome social, psychological, and economic barriers but also weathered extremely traumatic incidents. I vividly remember the day I feigned death for two hours, lying among the dead and injured, to save myself when my town was attacked by a non-state armed group. We bounced back after such incidents with the help of supportive networks at our schools and universities. Denying women access to universities is thus also denying us access to these positive coping mechanisms.

Individuals benefit directly and significantly from tertiary education. In South Asia, according to the World Bank, the average labour market returns for tertiary education is higher than any other stage of education, estimated in 2014 at 23.3% for women and 16.6% for men.  Enhanced earning potential for women does not only bring material benefits and economic independence but also non-monetary benefits such as improved individual and family health, which has positive intergenerational effects.

Also read: Had No Other Option, Says Afghan Teacher Who Resigned After Women Barred From Universities

Women’s education was considered a shining example of the reconstruction of Afghanistan. In the past two decades, the enrollment and participation of women and girls not only increased in the primary and secondary education spaces, but also in the higher education space. Over the past few years, female participation in the University Entrance Exam showed a steady increase and despite all the barriers, women topped the entrance exams as well in recent times. However, with the recent ban, much of the hard-fought progress is set to be reversed.

An urgent need

Immediately after the Taliban announced the decree, the Government of India expressed concern for the women of Afghanistan and denounced the de facto authority’s decision to stop it, stating that India “has consistently supported the cause of female education in Afghanistan”.

While it was heartening to see the Government of India express its concern, it is important to note that it is well placed to respond to the new situation. This could be done by ensuring continued access to higher education for Afghan women through the online bachelor’s and master’s programmes of its private and public open universities, especially the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU).

Through IGNOU, which is the world’s largest open university, India is already offering online bachelor’s, master’s and certificate programmes for international students. This is an opportunity which some Afghan women can avail without putting their lives at risk.

According to IGNOU, Afghan women and men are charged reduced course fees since Afghanistan is a South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) country. However, with the ongoing banking restrictions in Afghanistan, it is impossible for Afghan women to make international payments to IGNOU for these graduate and postgraduate programmes. The Government of India can resolve this problem by providing scholarships to Afghan women who are interested in pursuing these online courses. While there may be other technology and language related barriers, a sizeable number of women in Afghanistan would thus be able to continue pursuing higher education either by themselves or with support from humanitarian and development agencies in Afghanistan.

As admissions for these online programmes take place in January and July 2023, the immediate provision of scholarships will cater to 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 among the Afghan student community when it recently rejected the e-visas of Afghan students enrolled in Indian universities. In this moment of crisis for Afghan women, India can be a beacon of hope.

Shakila was a university student in Afghanistan until the ban on higher education for women was made by the de facto authority.

Ali Amiri is a former mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) aid worker and currently conducts research on psychology.

Siddharth Pillai is a former Prime Minister’s Rural Development Fellow (Government of India) and currently manages Education in Emergency (EiE) Programmes in Afghanistan.