gender

Empowering girls through education in Tajikistan

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Channel your supercat this year! Be like Tajik teacher Hamadony Muzafarov and work for a better world.

Happy new year! I hope that 2019 will bring you health and happiness, and I hope that the world becomes a slightly more sensible place this year (I can hope, right?).

Kicking off the year is a wonderful story about an inspiring teacher in rural Tajikistan who over the course of many years has shown great dedication to his students.

Hamadony Muzafarov is particularly committed to his female students, working to raise the opportunities and prospects for girls and women both in and out of the classroom. As Muzafarov says:

“My passion for empowering local girls, sharing the benefits of knowing English, and making children excited about learning, drives my desire to teach. Even in this remote corner of Tajikistan, it’s important to inspire and educate the future leaders of our world and all of its individual communities.”

-Hamadony Muzafarov

His ‘day in the life’ story is below. Read, enjoy, and be inspired to take action!

The article is (c) TES and can be found in the original at https://www.tes.com/news/day-teaching-life-ofhamadony-muzafarov

A day in the teaching life of Hamadony Muzafarov

This teacher faced opposition when he began teaching girls English in the rural villages of Tajikistan, but he refused to give up

By Hamadony Muzafarov

30 December 2018

When I left my remote village to attend college in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, I dreamed of becoming an English teacher in Tajik villages. But when I started teaching, I had significant problems with local attitudes: local men told me that it’s better if their wives are uneducated so that they won’t be able to talk back or challenge them, even in the case of physical violence.

Realising the severity of the problem, I dedicated my work to women’s education in this difficult climate. Slowly, I’ve changed local attitudes: first ensuring that girls can complete high school and eventually, in 2014, integrating classrooms, so that boys and girls could learn together. English is key to female empowerment – in Tajikistan, knowledge of the language is necessary to attend university.

Mastering the English language can open a student’s mind and allow them to exchange ideas, opinions and cultural views. Similarly, it plays a great role in intercultural relationships and increases opportunities for the future. It will allow students to pursue higher education, apply for scholarships abroad, and it increases their employment opportunities.

To reach these goals, I ran my own language centre, Dunyoi Donish, from 2006 to 2016 and taught in local schools. Since 2010, I have worked in partnership with the US Embassy in Tajikistan to teach the English Access Micro-Scholarship Programme, which is targeted at children from low-income families.

Until 2014, the male and female students who were accepted on the programme were separated from 10 to 14-years-old until I started mixing them. Throughout the year, I facilitate a girl’s empowerment club. Every summer, I run a summer leadership Program and organize a free summer English club for children which teaches English and leadership.

My passion for empowering local girls, sharing the benefits of knowing English, and making children excited about learning, drives my desire to teach. Even in this remote corner of Tajikistan, it’s important to inspire and educate the future leaders of our world and all of its individual communities. I strive to create a safe and friendly learning environment inside the classroom, and outside of the classroom I plan activities where students can encourage and empower other students.

At times, it’s been an uphill battle. I fight daily in a traditional society where it is challenging for girls to reach even secondary school. Tajik girls in rural areas are often pulled out of school as teenagers and forced into marriages. I’ve worked with girls from rural and underprivileged backgrounds by building trust with parents when I launched an all-girls group.

Once I won trust in the community, I started gradually mixing girls with boys to foster gender balance in my classroom. My first female students have become “trailblazers” in the community, have confidence, and share their knowledge with other girls in the villages. They have learned English so well that they have become competitive for highly sought-after slots in American exchange programmes.

In 2015, I created a leadership development club for girls where 100 schoolgirls attended seminars on women’s rights, gender issues, parenting, environment, sewing, debate and peer training. The project included speakers who came to discuss the importance of education and disadvantages of child marriage.

In the Rasht region, war has damaged the quality of education. The remote locale of my district reduces opportunities for low-income citizens to receive a proper education. Female attendance in my region has been historically low because many families think education for girls is useless. This situation presents a unique set of challenges for any educator.

In 2010, the US Embassy provided me with funds for a pilot programme that encourages talented female students to study English. All the girls applied to institutions of higher learning to become English teachers, physicians, or other professionals.

Two of them were the first in their village to go to the US with exchange programmes, the first from their village. One of them, Madina, was one of my private students. After studying in the US, she became a teacher in Dushanbe.

She’s a clear success story. One of the judges of the Teaching Changes Lives competition at Oxford University even commented: “If we need proof that teaching changes lives, [Madina’s story shows] beyond doubt the power of education.”

The importance of teaching female students in a conservative society has been groundbreaking. So many girls regularly attend my classes and I have no doubt that all will be successful.

Hamadony Muzafarov is an EFL teacher, ambassador at TeachSDGs and runs a University Prep Club for Girls

(c) TES, https://www.tes.com/news/day-teaching-life-ofhamadony-muzafarov

University admissions in Tajikistan: Who wants to be an engineer?

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It’s university admissions season in Tajikistan and as a record number of school leavers sit the nationwide university entrance exams, ever-reliable news outlet Asia-Plus took a look at the prospects for the class of 2021.

This unified nationwide testing system was introduced in 2013 as part of a project funded by the World Bank and with Russian government assistance. This follows a pattern seen across the post-Soviet states, where university-specific admissions arrangements have been centralized into a national testing system with one of the main goals being to overcome corruption (bribe-taking, use of contacts etc) in university admissions.

(For a more detailed overview of shifts in access to higher education across the former Soviet Union, I recommend this 2012 paper by Anna Smolentseva of the Higher School of Economics in Russia)

In the Tajik university entrance exam system, all potential university students have to take three exams in Tajik language, maths, and the history of the Tajik people and the foundations of the state and law. Then, depending on the subject you wish to specialize in, you also take another three exams focusing on that area. The five subject-specific clusters are: natural and technical sciences; economics and geography; philology, pedagogy and art; social studies and law; and medicine, biology and sport.

The National Testing Centre produces a useful document for future students called ‘How to choose your course’ [ru] (this uses the term “spetsialnost’” or specialism, which dates back to the Soviet era of planned economy and direct pipeline from university to job market). The guidance suggests that candidates consider the following questions:

-What do you expect to achieve from this specialism?

-Does it meet your interests, aptitudes and abilities?

-Can this area satisfy your needs?

-Can you make a living from this area?

The guidance underlines the importance of the last question and highlights a phenomenon also identified by Asia-Plus, where the prestige of subjects such as economics and law has led to a glut of graduates who now sit unemployed because demand far outstrips supply.

With over 10,000 candidates competing for less than 5,000 nationwide places in subjects related to social studies and law, there is clearly a large gap – not just between those who will make it to university and those who won’t based on the exam score, but in the subjects students want to study and what the government thinks the labour market can bear.

Asia-Plus spoke to candidates taking the exams about how they’d chosen their areas of specialism. Farrukh aspires to be a prosecutor or investigator because they are “the most respected people” and they earn a lot. Muhammad’s father is a teacher and would like him to become one too, but Muhammad is pessimistic: “Teaching isn’t a prestigious career anymore. My dad’s a teacher and where has that got him? He hasn’t even got a car. He owes everyone money.” Like Farrukh, Muhammad dreams of joining the legal profession.

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Sure you can fix it, but the problem is that there aren’t enough engineers to go round in Tajikistan

The perceived prestige of economics, law and medicine has in parallel downgraded the prestige of science and technology related jobs. However, as one commentator in the Asia-Plus article notes, “I think that electricians and plumbers earn a lot more than doctors and lawyers. I paid an electrician $800 for 3 days’ work!”.

People I’ve spoken to in universities here are acutely aware of the need for more students to fill scientific and technical positions in the labour market, and it’s clear that the government is also trying to encourage students in this direction. As Asia-Plus notes, Tajikistan has a great need for more graduates with skills in new technologies, geology, industry, transport and energy.

Yet it is the overwhelming and now fairly enduring trend towards areas such as economics, law and medicine that make the headlines. This interest is generally associated with the earnings potential of jobs in these areas – both the take-home pay packet and in the potential to unofficially earn extra on the side.

The take home message here is not all negative. The fact that nearly 100,000 school leavers are choosing to take the university entrance exams because they want to continue their education is laudable. If spread evenly across the subject clusters, that would mean an average of 1.5 candidates for every university/college place available. Demand is high. The tradition established during the Soviet era of placing strong value on higher education in Tajikistan persists, despite the difficulties the country has experienced since becoming independent in 1991.

Nevertheless, a supportive underlying culture in this case is not enough.

I am a great believer in the transformative power of higher education, but it also seems that a dose of labour market-related realism is in order here.

Much more outreach work needs to be done in schools to help young people learn about the post-university job options that are available to them. The prestige of technical jobs has to be addressed creatively and positively. Public sector jobs ought to attract greater salaries so that good candidates are not turned off by the prospect of spending four years in university only to earn $100 a month.

And another point that is not made in any of the government documentation is the need to enrich the job opportunities (and social mobility possibilities) available to female students, especially those from rural areas. As one respondent to Asia-Plus’ interviews noted, she’d ideally like to be a banker or a tax inspector. However, as a rural woman she’s instead limited to being a midwife or a teacher.

And so the cycle continues…

Gender gaps in higher education across Central Asia

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After a recent blog post I published on Women in higher education in Central Asia, I was approached by University World News to write more about why it is that some women in Central Asia – particularly those in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan – are doing so much better (better even than the world average) in getting to university than their counterparts in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

This led to some fascinating further research trying to understand more about this conundrum.

I am hugely grateful to Aksana Ismailbekova, Albina Yun and another researcher who chose to remain anonymous for their expert insights and support for this article, which I am delighted to say has now been published:

http://www.universityworldnews.com/article.php?story=20160707140807406

I would love to get your comments on this important issue, and ideas / practices from elsewhere in the world that might support greater gender equality in the parts of Central Asia where opportunities to enter higher education are not (yet) as accessible for women.

Steps towards gender equality in Kyrgyzstan

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Happy new year / S novim godom / Soli nav muborak to you all!

Kickstarting this year’s set of posts is a report from Kyrgyzstan on steps being taken – primarily by the government and a small but growing number of local NGOs – to bring greater equality to the country.

The article can be found at https://www.opendemocracy.net/transformation/cristina-maza/challenging-patriarchy-in-kyrgyzstan.

The author points out the unusual situation of formerly Soviet-run countries where women’s roles have actually decreased in equality terms since the fall of the Soviet Union at the start of the 1990s. Soviet policies towards women were, like many aspects of its rule, largely economic-led (e.g. more women in the workforce = greater productivity), but had knock on social and cultural impacts that benefitted women’s status.

Christina Maza’s balanced and interesting article offers an insight into how gender roles are developing in independent Kyrgyzstan. What is most fascinating is the stark divide for women, where the haves (middle class, educated etc) take bold steps towards a greater role for women by, for example, holding high level government posts but the have nots (often rural and from poorer backgrounds) may marry young and not be able to access opportunities for educational and/or career development.

I have in the past read about initiativesthat are bringing concepts of gender equality and women’s rights to more rural areas, but much more needs to be done to give parity to women within Kyrgyzstan. Last summer, I met with senior female university managers, one of whom has since been appointed to a very high level government post. I was perhaps even more delighted to meet a female taxi driver in Bishkek, a profession in many countries predominantly held by men. These women are in their own right extraordinary people, and I hope that across Kyrgyzstan more women will be able to develop and employ their skills on at least a level pegging with their male counterparts.

Visualising educational disparity in Uzbekistan

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UNDP has produced this eye-catching visual representation of what would otherwise be a very long statistics heavy report showing the state of education in Uzbekistan, which a focus on the differences in participation and outcome based on gender. Reproduced below (c) UNDP Uzbekistan, source http://visual.ly/women-and-men-uzbekistan-difference-education.

Infographics are an excellent way of familiarising people with what can sometimes feel like very ‘heavy’ numbers. By looking at this infographic, you would grasp a number of facts quite quickly. The most striking to me – which is not as gender specific as some of the data – is the drop in participation in higher education and the fact that only 9% of school leavers are going on to university now. Compare that to neighbouring Tajikistan (20% participation rate) and don’t even think about other neighbours Kazakhstan (41%) or Kyrgyzstan (51%) (source: World Bank, 2011).

The implications for Uzbekistan’s future human potential are deeply worrying and not even a beautiful infographic like this one can hide some serious concerns.