In 1977, the United Nations instituted International Women’s Day, which began to be celebrated annually on March 8, a celebration that concerns more than half of the world’s population. Stressing the importance of this date is justified not only by its numerical scope, but also by what is at stake for the future of Humanity.
These events are all the more significant as they are used to draw attention to the essential issue of gender equality, in terms of rights and opportunities, in the various fields of life in society – education, health, work, just to name a few examples – but also in the plan for sharing responsibilities, access to decision-making positions and positions of power, remuneration for work or the exercise of governance. Without forgetting that gray and sometimes unconscious area of attitudes, prejudices and stereotypes, so often rooted in the collective unconscious, which feed and perpetuate gender discrimination.
What is certain is that, in the 21st century, equality between women and men is far from being a reality acquired throughout the world. Instead, this has been an arduous and ongoing fight, made up of small battles, victories and defeats, advances and retreats. As in everything that touches the life of humanity, in this domain there appear to be no definitive, unshakable or even irreversible conquests, although in the general calculation of the long duration, the path seems to be that of a journey with reasons for some optimism.
But on March 8, 2023, it is the voice of girls and women that we must hear and listen to, especially those whose lives of struggle and resistance in contexts of great fragility, violence and conflict summon that universal modicum of humanity that makes action imperative solidarity.
Last week, Shirin, an Afghan woman from Kabul who was planning to take the exam for the medical internship the following Saturday, told, with a frown on her face, livid with disbelief and dismay, that she had just learned that the girls were, after all, forbidden to compete. Her cousin, Zahra, a slightly younger girl who had already gone to university before the ban imposed by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, expressed her energy and determination to continue her studies, against winds and tides, asking us for help to come to Portugal, assuring us of their parents’ full support for this option.
Yasmine, a widow in Syria, where in addition to the civil war that has lasted for 12 years, extreme poverty affects 90% of the population, is only thinking about how to manage to ensure the education of her two daughters.
These are, among so many others, voices that it is important to summon on this International Women’s Day, because, beyond words and celebrations, it is urgent to act, namely in terms of access to higher education for girls and women in a situation of systemic vulnerability, due to protracted crises or humanitarian emergencies.
About ten years ago, then-President Jorge Sampaio launched a pioneering scholarship program for Syrian students that literally saved the lives of many young people, providing them with protection, training them and giving them a solid horizon for the future. Examples of this, among many others, are Laila and Zulmira, two Syrian girls who were scholarship holders of this program and, last week, concluded their doctorates with excellence. Their radiant expressions, the pride of their advisors, family and friends on the path traveled together over the last nine years are etched in memory.
Also a few days ago, Yuliia and Anastasiia, two Ukrainian refugee girls in Portugal who are part of a scholarship program by the Galp Foundation, highlighted how much having resumed their studies had allowed them to recover some normalcy and give meaning to their lives, nurturing the hope of one day be able to make a useful contribution to the reconstruction of their country.
All these testimonies illustrate the profound impact of education on these girls’ lives and its incredible transforming power. In the life paths of these young women, scarred with fire and iron by the violence of war, conflicts or other equally dramatic crises, there is always a before and an after, with access to education marking out a new and unique cycle in its existence.
Portugal and Portuguese higher education institutions gave yet another strong sign of their determination to promote higher education in humanitarian emergency situations when, in the context of the invasion of Ukraine, they welcomed and facilitated the admission of students fleeing the war who needed international protection , including in traditionally less obvious training areas such as medicine. It is now important to make this case, so far isolated, a precedent and keep the bar at the same level for all people at risk or refugees.
On February 10, 2023, the Assembly of the Republic approved, in good time, a resolution recommending the Portuguese Government to make efforts with European and international institutions in order to promote the entry into higher education of Afghan refugees and in particular in Portugal.
What better way to mark the 8th of March 2023 than to support and embody this recommendation by the academic community, the private and philanthropic sector and civil society towards the creation and implementation of a special program for access and integration into higher education for Afghan youth already for the 2023-2024 academic year?
Let’s make the 8th of March 2023, for students whose access to higher education is forbidden for ideological and political reasons, a beacon of hope.
The proper names of the people mentioned in the text have been changed. The author writes on behalf of Nexus 3.0 – Association for the promotion of Education, Science, Art and Culture in contexts of Fragility, Conflict and Violence (https://nexus3.pt).
The author writes according to the new spelling agreement