October, 2019 – Almaty, Kazakhstan. Afghan students share rooms with groupmates, each with varying class schedule during quarantine. This is disruptive. But students solved the issue - they organized a shift. Photo : UNDP Kazakhstan

For Afghan women like Sodaba Hurmat, 25, studying at top universities in Kazakhstan is opening up a whole new world of opportunities – academic and professional.

Sodaba Hurmat, from Badakhshan Province, Afghanistan arrived in Kazakhstan last October, together with 30 other young women, to pursue quality education. They are part of an EU-funded education initiative, “Economic Empowerment of Afghan Women through Education and training in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan”, implemented by UNDP.

The €2 million EU grant aims to provide higher educational opportunities for Afghan women, who face longstanding and entrenched barriers to education and employment compared to their male counterparts back home.

Sodaba was among the top candidates selected. Her new path to academic excellence started with an ongoing eight-month English and Russian languages course at Almaty Management University (ALMA U). This is a stepping stone to pursuing a master’s degree in mining at Satbayev University.

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit the country this spring, Sodaba and her classmates, like millions of students around the world, had to shift to online learning. But this was easy thanks to Almaty Management University’s academic mix of class- and distance-learning already in place.

ALMA University uses the latest learning technology. Assem Amantay, head, ALMA University Language School, notes: “Students have used the Google Classroom platform since January for submitting homework, getting feedback and for evaluations. During the quarantine we continued using this learning platform. Zoom videoconferencing solved our problem of holding interactive classes.”

According to IBM, students can learn fivefold more material using multimedia content by studying at their own pace compared to traditional face-to-face courses. Retention rates might also increase from 25 to 60 percent.

Yuliya Chulkova, language tutor at ALMA University, notes in this regard that her students have become more focused and disciplined, “No more excuses arriving late or missing classes. I see great learning improvements at my listening and reading classes.”

At the same time, online learning requires great discipline and time management skills. Sodaba recalls her first weeks under quarantine learning were difficult: “It was totally new for us. We were stressed because we couldn’t manage our time. But eventually we adapted to a new schedule and to a novel way of learning.”

At the outset her living conditions at ALMA University were cramped. Sharing a dorm with three roommates, each with varying class schedule, was disruptive. But they organized a shift. Sodaba says appreciatively, “The university allocated a separate study room for us in our dormitory and provided a laptop for one of our students.”

But bottom line, Sodaba prefers in-person learning. “Online learning is convenient because commuting time is minimal and we get assignments via Google Classroom. But in face-to-face classes we interact and socialize with local students and get attuned to our new cultural environment,” says Sodaba. 

October, 2019 - Almaty, Kazakhstan. The first cohort o Afghan students arrived in Almaty and started language courses in ALMA University. Photo: UNDP Kazakhstan

In May the students will have to pass the language exams to qualify for academic courses next September. Given the pandemic risks many girls have decided not to return to Afghanistan this summer.

“If the Covid-19 situation worsens in Afghanistan, we’ll have difficulties returning. I’m used to being far away from my family, but it’s tough for many girls who left home for the first time. But, above all, we don't want to put our education at risk,” says Sodaba.

Currently, UNDP is recruiting a new batch of students for next September as part of this EU-funded initiative. A total of 50 young women from Afghanistan will receive education in Central Asian universities until 2025.

Even if classes continue online during this global pandemic, for the Afghan women students this chance at higher education is a sure hard-won passport to economic empowerment.

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This initiative, funded by the European Union (EU) and implemented by UNDP, allows Afghan women to study and graduate from universities in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The initiative aims to provide educational opportunities for Afghan women, who face disproportionate barriers to education and employment compared to their men counterparts back home. Currently, UNDP is recruiting a new batch of students, who are to start their studies in September. Overall 50 young women from Afghanistan will receive technical and vocational education in Central Asian universities until 2025.  

April, 2020 – Almaty, Kazakhstan. Afghan students learn online during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown. Photo: UNDP Kazakhstan

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