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An innovative new EU-funded scheme designed to empower Afghan girls and women has been formally launched,writes Colin Stevens.
The scheme, launched at a ceremony in Brussels on 12 November, aims to address stark disparities between males and females in the war-weary country.
Under the programme, women from Afghanistan will receive vital education and training in two neighbouring countries; Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
While women constitute nearly half of the estimated 35 million population of Afghanistan, their formal contribution to the country’s development remains low. The country ranks 168th out of 189 countries in the UNDP 2018 Human Development Report, and 153rd on its Gender Inequality Index.
The “Economic Empowerment of Afghan Women through Education and Training in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan” aims to address such issues.
Speaking at the launch of the initiative, Roman Vassilenko, deputy foreign minister of Kazakhstan outlined the “unique” features of the scheme, telling this website, “It is the first time the EU has financed the education of Afghan women in my country and Uzbekistan.”
He added, “This is significant because it shows the level of cooperation between the various parties and the opportunities that can be obtained by working together for the sake of Afghanistan’s future.
“This is vital particularly because Afghanistan badly needs educated personnel, especially women.What this programme does is give girls and women the chance that they may otherwise not get. Of course, after their time in Kazakhstan and Uzbeskistan they will return to their own country.”
Initially, about 50 women and girls will be involved in the training and education programme but this is likely to be enlarged over time, he told EUReporter.
He added: “I would like to thank the EU for its support on this. I have already spoken to some of those involved in the first ‘batch’ involved and they agreed that this is a unique opportunity to enhance their education.
“They told me about their personal dream – the peace and prosperity of their country – and I firmly believe that this programme will genuinely help achieve this.
“We need to realise that Afghanistan is not so much a challenge but an opportunity.”
He pointed out that, so far, Kazakhstan has provided some €80m aid to Afghanistan, funds which had gone to hospitals, schools and improving the country’s battered infrastructure, including roads and bridges.
The new programme, launched at the Commission’s Berlaymont headquarters, will “strengthen cooperation” and further help the impoverished Afghan people, including women, he said.
He added: “There is also the multiplier effect: this sort of cooperation and assistance can help build relations in the whole region, not just in Afghanistan, which can hopefully create peace and prosperity for many, many people.”
Vassilenko went on: “We are ready to fully implement this programme so as to fully maximise its effects.
“The programme, financed by the EU, shows the readiness of all those involved to work together to help the Afghans.
Further comment came from Abdulaziz Kamilov, the Uzbek foreign minister, who told the packed audience at the launch that the economic prospects of Afghans was “directly linked” to the ongoing peace effort in the war torn country.
He agreed that the programme was a “unique chance to empower Afghan women” and produce “highly skilled” personnel.
He said that, shortly, about 40 Afghan girls would start nursing courses in his country and would also learn about the Uzbek language and culture.
The empowerment programme would, he noted, help “fully support” the Afghan peace process by boosting the economy with more and better educated/trained women entering the workforce. It could also help the whole region’s economic development.
Paola Pampaloni, director and deputy managing director for the Asia, Pacific Region for the EESC, said such efforts were vital given that 30% of Afghan women are paid an average of 30% less than their male counterparts and that a mere 4.3% of women in Afghanistan were currently employed in managerial posts in the country.
It was estimated that only 210 women in the country had a masters degree.
While the male literacy rate is 45.42%, for females is 17.61%, showing a big gap between the sexes, she said.
She said: “This programme is not just about education but also about meeting gaps in the workforce, particularly in sectors such as agriculture and mining in Afghanistan.”
She added: “The EU is also committed to strengthening relations with all our partners in Central Asia. The programme launched today is only a first step and is a concrete example of the impact EU policy can have on the lives of people.”
Another speaker, Nazifullah Salarzai, the Afghan ambassador to the EU and Belgium, told the event that the programme would “address some of the most challenging issues” facing his country, adding that an estimated 50 percent of the Afghan society, mostly women, had been “isolated” by the war.
He said: “Of course, if you want to isolate and impoverish a country then you isolate its women. If, on the other hand, you want to a country to flourish then you empower its women and that’s what the Economic Empowerment of Afghan Women through Education and Training in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan programme will do, that is, empower women and give them more independence.”
He added: “This scheme and this investment will achieve a lot, not just for my country but the region.”
Afghanistan has been torn by conflict for nearly four decades. Security threats continue to challenge socio-economic progress. The Taliban took over Kabul in September 1996, establishing the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and their policies resulted in the exclusion of women from the public sphere, requiring women to wear a burqa and banning them from leaving the home without an accompanying male relative.
Women were not allowed to work, or to be schooled after the age of eight. With peace prospects yet to fully materialise, Afghanistan has, however, made some progress towards economic development.
EU High Representative Vice President Federica Mogherini has reiterated her commitment to women education made at the Astana Conference on Empowering Women in Afghanistan in September 2018.
The EU says the new assistance will further support a more enabling environment for Afghan women to participate in economic and public life.
The aim is for equal access for girls and women to all levels of quality education and vocational education and training (VET) free from discrimination and access to decent work for women of all ages.