Kabul University launches nation's first women and gender studies program

Story highlights

  • 18 women, 10 men are in Afghanistan's first graduate program focused on women's issues
  • The program aims to educate experts, train activists and spawn valuable research
  • "This program ... will widen opportunities for Afghan women," says a Kabul woman who helped launch the program

(CNN)Opportunity.

It's what many Afghan women were denied by years of war and Taliban repression. That includes opportunities to get an education, not to mention chances to explore fully what women do and can offer their society.
    On Saturday, the movement toward more opportunities for Afghan women took a step forward with the launch of a master's degree program focused on Gender and Women's Studies at Kabul University. The program is the first of its kind in all Afghanistan, where many girls have been -- and, in some cases, still are -- prohibited from getting any education at all, much less one probing issues related to their gender.
    "Women in Afghanistan have had it tough, and we have lost (a lot of opportunities) for children," said Farima Naderi, a Kabul native who worked with the United Nations to help set up the initiative. "This program ... will widen opportunities for Afghan women."
    Twenty-eight students in all -- 18 women and 10 men -- have enrolled in the first class of what will be a two-year program at the state-funded university. The mission, according to a United Nations Development Program press release, is "to create a platform for training future advocates of gender equality; generate research on gender, violence against women and underprivileged groups; and raise awareness about men's and women's social responsibilities."
    The government of South Korea (whose President, Park Geun-hye, is a woman) has funded the program. It will include information on women's legal rights and what role they can play in reducing poverty, resolving conflicts and taking part in the political process.
    "This program will serve as a model that universities throughout the country can replicate ... in the future," Afghan Higher Education Minister H.E. Farida Momand said.
    There have been times in recent Afghan history, of course, when the idea of girls attending school or training female activists might have seemed preposterous.
    The Taliban instituted strict laws restricting women's roles in most all aspects of public life -- from voting to jobs to school. In fact, they couldn't even leave home unless accompanied by a male escort and wearing a burqa, which became a symbol of the Taliban's repressive regime.
    Women's rights are guaranteed under Afghanistan's constitution, which took effect after the Taliban's fall in 2001. But that's hardly meant instant and absolute equality, given entrenched beliefs, many of them held by more conservative Muslims propagating a male-dominated society.
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    A 2011 poll from the Thomson Reuters Foundation ranked Afghanistan as the most dangerous country for women, citing violence, poor health care and widespread, severe poverty. And it hasn't gotten all better since then, with the United Nations reporting women's casualties during 2014 rising 21% over the previous year, which itself was a 20% increase over 2012.
    Yet there have been definite progress as well, especially in education.
    While girls were essentially shut out of schools under the Taliban, roughly 2.5 million (in addition to 5.5 million boys) now attend Afghan schools, according to USAID, an American governmental agency. The overall number of people in secondary education has skyrocketed as well, from 7,800 in 2001 to some 123,000 in 2013.
    Naderi has seen positive changes especially in Kabul, the Afghan capital where she has spent most of her life except for her time in Pakistan during the worst of the Afghan war. There, most girls are attending schools with computers in their classrooms.
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    "But elsewhere, there are a lot of girls who have lots of problems," she said. "We have lots of females who still need support -- to provide some opportunities to them and to convince people to allow them to go to school."
    The hope is that the new Kabul University program. Ideally, it will grow and perhaps inspire similar initiatives elsewhere. Rather than having to rely on outside experts, it can produce scholars and activists to talk about the importance of an even playing field, show how it can help society and do something about it.
    It's the kind of program that Naderi wishes she had growing up, but she's thrilled to have now.
    "I'm really proud that finally we've reached this outcome," she said, "that we'll be able to something for the women of Afghanistan, that we've opened the door (of) opportunities for women."