Women’s Education: Afghanistan’s Biggest
Success Story over two decades is Now at Risk

Author: Shahidullah Helamand

In 2020, Shamsia Alizada, the daughter of a coal miner from Kabul, received the highest
score out of 170,000 students in the annual national university entrance exam. In a
country full of grim news, news of Alizada’s achievement brought happiness to many.
Alizada’s success came at an important time for the country as the government engaged
in talks with the Taliban on a possible peace deal in Doha. Her success made it into
news programs and spread on social media like wildfire. Government officials, civil
society, journalists, and social media users intensely covered her success, positioning it
as part of the argument for the Taliban that women’s rights and their active participation
matter, and women have to be considered and their rights taken seriously. The Taliban
did not let girls go to school or allow many women to work under their rule from 1996
to 2001.
Education has long been held up as a shining example of Afghanistan’s reconstruction.
Since 2001, after the overthrow of the Taliban, the international community has
invested billions into the education sector in Afghanistan.
Over the last two decades, Afghan women had great opportunities to improve their lives
in many areas, including education. By 2018, girls made up almost 38 percent- 3.8
million – of students in the country; by comparison only 5,000 Afghan girls were
enrolled in schools in 2001. Not only has the enrollment of girls in school increased
over the last two decades, but the presence of women in higher education has also risen.
Datasets from Afghanistan’s national entrance exam, called Kankor, show that the
number of female participants in the Kankor examinations has gradually increased in
the last 20 years. The statistics from the Kankor datasets also illustrate the persistent

wide gender disparity in higher education. But a steady rise in female participation in
the exam seemed promising.
According to statistics from the Ministry of Higher Education (MoHE), the gender
disparity in higher education enrollment decreased over time in favor of female students
entering Afghan universities. For example, there were only 1,000 female participants
in the Kankor exam in 2003, while this number jumped to an all-time high – 78,000 – in 2013.

As figure shows, however, the number of male participants in the Kankor exam has
always exceeded that of female participants on the national level. But this is not true in
some provinces in Afghanistan. For instance, Herat witnessed a reversal, with the
number of female participants in the exam coming to exceed that of male participants.
This change of participation in a highly traditional society where abundant hindrances
exist for female education is phenomenal.

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