When Aziz Amir was a young man, his mother died from an infection which should have been easy to treat. “She didn’t go to a hospital because she didn’t want to show herself to a male doctor,” says Amir, a trained cardiologist who now owns a private hospital in Kabul. Determined to give more Afghan women medical training, in May he inaugurated the Moraa Educational Complex, a private university for women only, together with a school and nursery for their children. Housed in a cluster of lime-coloured buildings, the university offers medicine, nursing and midwifery courses.
Afghanistan (pop. 33.4 million) has many private universities. Moraa is the first one just for women. Will it boost women’s education, or perpetuate segregation of the sexes? Many Afghan girls do not even make it through school, leaving to get married (15 percent of all girls wed by the age of 15) or because their parents are unwilling to let them mingle with boys after puberty. Under the fundamentalist rule of the Taliban, girls’ enrolment in primary schools fell from 32 percent to just 6.4 percent between 1996 and 1999. Only 24 percent of women are literate, according to Unesco, compared with 52 percent of men.
The failure to turn out female graduates has a woeful impact on women’s health, since it means too few female medical and nursing staff. Again, the figures have improved, but not sufficiently. Around 4,000 midwives have been trained since 2003. But the maternal mortality rate is still 327 per 100,000 births — far better than in 2002, when it was 1,600, but still very high by international standards.
In funding the new university’s set-up costs, Amir has taken a risk. Afghanistan’s stagnant economy makes it hard to be sure of a return. At present it has only 240 students, mostly from middle-class families; he has ambitions for a campus with a capacity of 12,000. But foreign donors are wary of funding institutions that are segregated by sex — a mistake, says Amir, since if fathers cannot send daughters to a place of learning they trust, many will not let them go at all.
Malina Heimat, who is 22 and will help train midwives, says her family made her resign from a job that involved working with men in a government hospital, but is allowing her to teach at Moraa. Marwa, a medical student, says it is easier to talk about biology when there are no men present. She isn’t worried that the campus could become a target. “We won’t let those people who don’t want us to get an education stop us.”