Oates: How Canada can help Afghan women get access to education, jobs

Oates: How Canada can help Afghan women get access to education, jobs

There are immediate, practical measures — drawing on existing resources and programs — that can be adapted to help counter the Taliban’s harsh new laws.

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The people of Afghanistan are suffering under the twin crises of a dire humanitarian emergency and an almost unrivaled human rights tragedy, both caused indisputably by the disastrous rule of the Taliban.

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While millions of Afghans are “knocking on famine’s door,” the Taliban leadership are focused, rather, on reviving their theocratic dystopia of the 1990s. on Dec. 20, they announced that, effective immediately, women could no longer access higher education. Two days later, they announced women could no longer work in non-governmental organizations, one of the few remaining sectors where women still had access to employment, and where they served as a key means of getting lifesaving aid into the hands of the most vulnerable .

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With the US administration apparently stumped about how to respond to this outrage, it’s easy to think that the situation is hopeless, and nothing can be done. That’s not the case.

Canadians, Canadian institutions and our government can take many actions right now to contribute to restoring Afghan women’s access to their right to education and their right to work. The actions needed must go beyond statements of condemnation. They must be practical measures, where we draw on existing resources and programs, and adapt them for women in Afghanistan as quickly as possible.

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Canadian institutions of higher education can accept transfer of students in Afghanistan, enable enrollment in virtual programs, waive application fees, provide scholarships, help students with courses that make them more eligible for international study opportunities, and contribute courses and expertise to localize higher-education opportunities for Afghans. These actions and more are outlined in an action toolkit for universities and colleges that was launched on Jan. 24, the International Day of Education.

Donor governments, such as Canada, can support Afghan women and girls to access study opportunities outside Afghanistan in countries that issue student visas to Afghan nationals, including to universities and colleges, and even to high schools, considering that secondary school is also banned for females in Afghanistan. There is also an emerging, if disparate, network of independent schools working in exile. These efforts can be supported to scale up and enhance quality, ensuring Afghans have access to alternative forms of education, and most importantly, to educational credentials that will be recognized internationally.

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These are just some of the recommended actions that could be taken on an urgent basis to respond to the crisis. As others have argued, “If women and women’s empowerment are anathema to the Taliban, then make women their kryptonite.”

There are promising first moves already. Germany has announced scholarships to support 5,000 women to study in neighboring countries. British universities are offering free courses to women in Afghanistan through FutureLearn. Scholars in the Afghan diaspora are appealing to universities to open their programs free of charge to Afghans.

While equitable access to quality education is imperative, so is access to work.

Afghanistan’s authorities are constricting people’s economic capacity. The restrictions on women’s work have incapacitated many families’ breadwinners. The Taliban’s policies and behavior have driven out investment and trade, making the country a pariah rather than one where people want to do business, thus cutting off potential job creation. This and other political maneuvers have triggered a downward spiral of bad consequences: the country becomes more isolated, more employers leave, more human capital leaves, unemployment rises, poverty rises and hunger rises. The millions who have no chance of fleeing the country are left behind to struggle through one of the harshest winters on record, which is killing the most vulnerable.

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The international community should continue to isolate the Taliban, but should do the very opposite for the people of Afghanistan: give them access to the global economy.

This can be done in many ways. One of the simplest is to hire residents of Afghanistan for remote work opportunities. Businesses and organizations will find a remarkable talent pool in the country, from graphic designers to software developers to project managers and more. Twenty years of a more open society and of economic growth helped education, training and jobs flourish in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is an untapped resource for a labor shortage in Canada and many other countries.

Governments can support employers with incentives to hire Afghans remotely, such as through job vouchers or stipends, drawing from similar models used in other programs to stimulate employment for specific groups. Existing programs such as the Economic Mobility Pathways Pilot for skilled refugees are promising, and can be enhanced to be more accessible to both employers and refugee job-seekers alike.

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The dignity and security of a job will feed families more reliably than erratic access to aid. And access to a real education will prove to be a post-Taliban Afghanistan’s greatest asset down the road, in the hopefully not-too-distant future.

Most Afghans are trapped, effectively locked inside their country. But practical and meaningful assistance can still reach them where they are. We must show with both our words and our actions that the world does not accept, denying the right to education to half a country’s population.

Lauryn Oates is executive director of Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan, a Canadian charity founded in 1998.

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