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SICA Success Stories

USAID Readies Young Women in Rural Tajikistan to Pursue STEM Education

Statistical data reveals a concerning gender disparity in education in Tajikistan, which intensifies as individuals progress through the educational system: at the higher education level, only 38.5 percent of graduates are women (UNESCO). Muqaddas Khomidjonova, a dedicated philology educator in Tajikistan, attributes this stark divide to deeply entrenched cultural norms that prioritize marriage over higher education for women in Tajikistan.

“Women in rural areas of Tajikistan encounter unique challenges in their pursuit of STEM education. Limited access to quality educational institutions is a primary concern,” Muqaddas shares. “Additionally, cultural norms and expectations play a significant role: families may not see the value of investing in their daughters' STEM education when they expect them to marry and take on household responsibilities at a young age.”

Recognizing the urgent need to address this pervasive issue, Muqaddas and her 19-year-old daughter, Nozanin, founded Shams ("Sunshine” in Tajik), an NGO located in the quaint city of Guliston in the Sogdian region. One Shams initiative is the Win the Future project, aimed at readying schoolgirls from rural areas to pursue higher education in STEM. With the USAID-funded Social Innovation in Central Asia (SICA) program's support, 127 young women completed comprehensive training in physics, mathematics, computer science, chemistry, and vital soft skills.

According to Muqaddas, the inspiration for this project came from her daughter. While studying computer science at a state university, Nozanin personally experienced the gender inequality prevalent in the STEM field. “In my class, only 10 percent of students were women, a discouraging factor for many,” Nozanin says. In rural areas, women’s enrollment rates were even lower. Muqaddas and Nozanin resolved to change this status quo.

As an experienced teacher herself, Muqaddas recognized that a student's drive largely stems from a teacher's capacity to spark passion for the subject. Thus, the first step of Win the Future was to enlist outstanding educators from three neighboring villages. These teachers would provide STEM skills lessons to girls in local schools through a dedicated after-school program.

The team devised a friendly competition among participating schools to further motivate and support the students. Participants earned points through academic advancement in extracurricular studies and attendance. The highest achieving student would win a trip to Tajikistan's capital, Dushanbe, including a visit to the country's leading university.

Win the Future’s impact is already evident. As of October 2023, 91 young women from rural backgrounds embarked on higher education tracks at university. Sixteen of them secured prestigious government scholarships. "I am elated that our venture as representatives of civil society has yielded such resounding success. Much of our achievement is attributed to the invaluable support we received from the USAID Social Innovation in Central Asia program," shares Muqaddas.

Shahzoda Ganiboeva, an 18-year-old project participant, earned a government-sponsored spot in the Faculty of Chemistry at the Tajik National University in Dushanbe. She credits a significant portion of her accomplishments to the instrumental Shams courses. "[The courses] have been transformative; without them, I might not have achieved what I have today."

For both Muqaddas and Nozanin, the Shams project marks merely the beginning of their journey to advocate for gender equality within Tajikistan's educational landscape. "We are gearing up to launch a focused media campaign to emphasize the critical role of education for Tajikistani women. The Shams initiative represents a pivotal step in our vision to lead rural girls towards advanced learning," Muqaddas affirms.

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