#WomeninBoym

How to deal with gender-based segregation?

Interview on the project Supporting the Economic Empowerment of Afghan Women through Education and Training in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Magdalena Sobańska-Cwalina and Krzysztof M. Zalewski (The Boym Institute) in discussion with: Yakup Beris, Johannes Stenbaek Madsen, Maria Dotsenko, Gulnar Smailova,

Instytut Boyma 11.12.2021

Authors: Magdalena Sobańska-Cwalina, Krzysztof M. Zalewski

interview on the project Supporting the Economic Empowerment of Afghan Women through Education and Training in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

Magdalena Sobańska-Cwalina and Krzysztof M. Zalewski (The Boym Institute) in discussion with:

  • Yakup Beris, Head of UNDP Kazakhstan
  • Johannes Stenbaek Madsen, Head of Cooperation at the EU Delegation to Kazakhstan in Nur-Sultan
  • Maria Dotsenko, UN Women Representative in Kazakhstan
  • Gulnar Smailova, Project manager for UN Women

Magdalena Sobańska-Cwalina (MSC) – It is a unique initiative connecting Central Asian Countries for women empowerment. Could you tell us more about this undertaking?

Yakup Beris (Y.B.): Our long-term project has just started. We invest in women’s economic empowerment through education and skills development.

We offer BA and MA programs as well as vocational trainings. A selected grantee needs to graduate from a language training before she begins her educational journey. So far, we have 50 Afghan women on board who have just begun their studies in neighboring countries which are new to them, Kazakhstan and – more recently – Uzbekistan.

Krzysztof Marcin Zalewski (KMZ): Let’s describe their educational journey for our readers step for step. How did they apply for this scholarship?

Yakup Beris (Y.B.): Before we started the project, we assessed the specializations and skills needed in Afghanistan. Thanks to the education obtained our grantees will increase their chances to acquire high quality jobs once they return to Afghanistan.  

In 2019 and 2020 in a long evaluation procedure, a commission set up by different stakeholders chose 50 winners from more than 500 applicants. Applicants proved their eligibility to win the scholarship by providing evidence of a long-term excellence in education. Only the most motivated and high-achieving applicants became the recipients of the scholarship. We have put all our efforts to ensure that all candidates have equal opportunities to access the scholarship and enjoy their right for education regardless their geographical, economic and cultural backgrounds while we made sure we could reach all geographies in the country to the extent possible.

But formal education is not everything. We need to be sure they have the social skills and attitude that will be crucial in their jobs. We support them when they study and we plan to continue to support them after their graduation. We help them establish a program alumnae network designed as a support group and also a way to transfer their skills to the others. We hope that many of them will go back to their jobs with higher responsibilities.

We don’t want to offer them just an education, but a complete transformative journey.

Maria Dotsenko (M.D.): We spoke to  our grantees and we have a very good collection of their stories. They were able to show this desire to study and change their communities after their return.  Each of these strong women has interesting and challenging life journey and strong desire to help to change the life in her community.  I really would love to see what happens to these women in 10 years. Who they become?

A very important aspect is the sustainability of the project: what will happen after women graduate? We hope they will be agents of change in Afghanistan. They don’t change only their own lives, but also the lives of their families and communities. They are going to  be role models for younger girls, for their brothers, fathers and others. They will demonstrate that women can be pro-active, can be a leader either in business or politics.

Some of them have already planned to run for parliament, lead big businesses or educate younger girls. Our project  empowers women, helps to create networks among our grantees and networks with their peers in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

By living in these countries, they see women participating in democratic processes, in politics, in business, in all other aspects of daily life. It is different from what they see at home. It is an additional advantage of bringing them here to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. For Afghan women it is easier to adapt to Kazakh or Uzbek realities. They have similar cultures, traditions, religions.

KMZ:   What feedback have you got from Afghan women in Kazakhstan so far?

Gulnar Smailova (G.S.):  During winter school on gender equality and women’s empowerment, which took place in January 2021 in Almaty, they emphasized the importance of sharing knowledge and practical experience with them. But equally important was the quality time they spent together and discussions among them. They discovered for themselves that Afghanistan can have qualified female leaders. Women leading their country to greater prosperity.

KMZ: What are the main barriers women face in Afghanistan?

Johannes Stenbaek Madsen (J.S.M.): In short: the lack of security, equal treatment and economic opportunities.

Y.B.: It is the part where you will need to dig deeper with the experts on Afghanistan. But this is about economic and educational empowerment indeed. UNDP reports state that 13% of all adult Afghan woman completed secondary education, compared with 37 % of adult men. Only 20% of all university students in Afghanistan are women. The country itself is ranked 169 out of 189 countries for the UNDP Human Development Index.

When you look at the labor market, women are active mostly in handicraft, specifically carpets, agriculture and public services, education and healthcare. But they represent less than 30% of the national labor force. They hold 4.5 percent of managerial positions. Women are expected to provide care for both young and old people while men have economic responsibilities.

When you look at all kinds of figures that may be representative for development of the country, you see a gender division. When you look at the labor force, you see gender segregation.

Education and skills trainings can provide women with better opportunities. There are many initiatives for assisting women in Afghanistan and we don’t want to replace them. Actually, over the last decade a significant progress has been made. Our project tries to offer an added value by establishing long-term international cooperation and improving social connectivity between the countries in the region. Stronger economically empowered Afghanistan can be a positive contributor to regional stability. Women shall play their role in this cooperation as well.

M.S.C.: It is quite an achievement to make so many organizations work together for a common aim. Could you tell our readers the story of the project? What was the main idea, who initiated the project, who made it possible?

J.S.M.:  The European Commission – more specifically staff of the General Directorate of DG DEVCO (now DG INTPA) in the EU Delegation and HQ in Brussels – designed the project based on a proposal from UN Women and a request from the Kazakh government to support its ongoing scholarship program for Afghan students. The EUR 2 million funding for the project was announced by the former EU High Representative and Vice-President of the Commission, Federica Mogherini, at a conference on Empowerment of Afghan women in Astana in September 2018 and eventually was secured and committed by the European Commission shortly thereafter.

Following a thorough analysis, we decided to approach UNDP and this was the right decision. UNDP has turned out to be a very effective implementing partner. The organization is very well placed to handle a program of this nature with offices and capable staff not only in all the Central Asian countries but – perhaps more importantly – in Afghanistan.

I would like to stress that the project would not have been realized without the EU’s initiative and that there are several critical elements of EU added value imbedded in its design. This includes: (1) the focus on women; (2) the focus on education in growth sectors; (3) the engagement of several Central Asian countries and (4) a holistic gender sensitive approach ensuring gender specific training provided by UN Women. Therefore, despite what the public might think, the project was not an existing UNDP-Kazakh government scholarship program that the EU then decided to sponsor. Together we created something new.

M.S.C.: Are other Central Asian countries, like Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan or Turkmenistan going to join that project in the near future?

J.S.M.: On 24 November 2020, the European Commission committed another EUR 4 million for a second phase of the program which will enable us also to engage Kyrgyzstan as a partner country, where Afghan women will be offered education and training opportunities.

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