Professor Joseph B. Berger with Razia Karim

Though soft-spoken, Razia Karim ’17 MEd is resolute in her goal to change the lives of Afghan women through education. “Change is happening and there is increasing support for women’s education,” the graduate student says, “but there are still many cultural barriers preventing women from participating in higher learning and many other aspects of society.”

Refugees of Afghanistan’s civil war and Taliban take-over, Karim’s family moved to Pakistan in 1995. While millions of Afghan girls were banned from going to school under Taliban rule, Karim’s parents encouraged her studies in Pakistan and she was able to complete her secondary school education.

By 2007, following protracted fighting against the Taliban led by US forces; NATO had assumed responsibility of security in the country and citizens had voted in the first presidential and parliamentary elections in more than 30 years. During this time, Karim decided to return to Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul. “As a refugee in Pakistan, it was hard to find work and the cost of college was very high.” Karim recalls. “With my English and technology skills, I had better job opportunities in Afghanistan.”

Karim was quickly hired as an office assistant with the Higher Education Project (HEP) at Kabul Education University. The project was administered by the UMass Amherst College of Education’s Center for International Education (CIE), along with other partners in a consortium.

CIE has been involved with the Higher Education Project in Afghanistan since 2006 through funding from the United States Agency for International Development. Initially, the project’s focus was to bolster and develop faculties in education. Subsequent funding has allowed CIE to strengthen the capacity of the Ministry of Higher Education and the management of universities. In January 2014, CIE became the lead technical partner for a consortium that was awarded $92 million by USAID to help connect academic programs with workforce development, building upon UMass’ ongoing leadership modernizing Afghan higher education.

“Our primarily focus is outreach, implementation and development work,” says Joseph B. Berger, co-director of the program and associate dean for research and engagement at the College of Education. “To me it’s part of the 21st century land-grant mission. We live in an increasingly global world and we have a responsibility to communities in our own backyard as well as those in other parts of the world.”

Karim’s relationship with UMass Amherst began with her first job at HEP, but as her role grew alongside the program, she developed a new appreciation for the importance of higher education, especially for women.  She completed night classes in Kabul to earn a bachelor’s degree in business administration and decided to focus her career on developing higher learning opportunities for Afghan women.

“I grew up hearing from my family, friends and the media that men are superior to females because they have more responsibilities. But I think that this is not completely right. Men are not superior. If you give an opportunity to any human being, man or woman, they can assume the same amount of responsibility and contribute the same amount of effort to achieve success toward the economic and social development of the country.”

Karim is currently pursuing her master’s degree in education at the UMass Amherst College of Education. Despite the worldwide attention on women’s rights and violence against women and in Afghanistan, she points to other indicators to show that progress is possible. “In 2001, no girls were going to school. Now its 2015, we have around three million girls going to primary school and women in higher education is around 19%, so there is a huge change and it is significant.”

Karim plans to return to Kabul and work with HEP, the Ministry of Higher Education and other partners to continue expanding women’s access and participation in higher education. 

Come hear Razia Karim speak of her personal experiences and perspectives as an Afghan woman on June 6 during Alumni Weekend. She will be joined by Professor Joseph B. Berger to share insights gained through the Center for International Education's Higher Education Project in Afghanistan. Register today!

By Elena Lamontagne