women university afghanistan

The impact of a gender quota on women’s education in Afghanistan


Published 15.04.24

Gender gaps in access to education have persisted in low- and middle-income countries, despite all but closing in high-income countries. Affirmative action for women in public universities in Afghanistan increased the share of women admitted by 32%. These findings highlight the promise of affirmative action as a strategy to bridge gender disparities in tertiary education in low- and middle-income countries.

Countries must fully utilise their human resources without discrimination to maximise their economic potential and competitiveness, particularly in contexts where expertise is scarce. Increasing access to educational opportunities is a promising pathway to developing a skilled labour force. Globally, countries are achieving significant progress in increasing enrollment in lower levels of education. The rate of enrollment for tertiary education, although moving in the right direction, is much slower (Our World in Data nd). This trend persists despite findings that the return on investment in education is more substantial for higher education and women (Psacharopoulos and Patrinos 2018). In low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), students from disadvantaged backgrounds face significant barriers to accessing and completing higher education than their more advantaged peers. Such structural barriers contribute to widening disparities, particularly gender gaps. Thus, policies ensuring equal access to educational and economic opportunities for historically marginalised groups such as women can be critical in accelerating economic growth.

The gender gap in education

Gender gaps in education are evident despite a positive trend across numerous economies (Evans et al. 2021). For instance, Afghanistan, having made substantial progress in enrolling female students at lower levels of education—specifically, secondary education1 —still lags significantly behind the South Asia Region (SAR) and fragile and conflict-affected settings (FCS) in both secondary and tertiary education levels, as shown in Figure 1. This example underscores the persistent challenge of gender disparities in tertiary education. The focus on primary and secondary school, while essential, should not overshadow the critical importance of tertiary education. Tertiary education plays a significant role in the social and economic development and well-being of societies, particularly in preparing a specialised workforce for today’s rapidly changing technological landscape. Empirical evidence supports the notion that targeted policies, such as affirmative action, can be instrumental in reducing educational disparities, particularly gender gaps (Bertrand et al. 2010, Holzer and Neumark 2000, Mello 2022, Najam 2024, Oliveira et al. 2024).

Figure 1: Secondary and tertiary level school enrollment, female (% gross)

Secondary and tertiary level school enrollment, female (% gross)

Data source: World Bank Open Data https://data.worldbank.org - figure produced by the author.

One of the major barriers to accessing public tertiary education, particularly university-level education in LMICs, are the admission mechanisms—admissions are often determined by applicants' exam performance (e.g. Kankor in Afghanistan, Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board examinations in Nigeria). In Afghanistan, public universities operate under a centralised system, and admission is determined by the applicant's scores on the annual nationwide entrance exam for public universities (known as the Kankor examination). As a result of systematic underinvestment in women's education in the country, female test-takers tend to score lower than males, reducing their likelihood of admission.

The 2016 gender admission quota in Afghanistan

As illustrated in Figure 1, Afghanistan's rate of female enrollment in tertiary education significantly trails that of other regional and FCS contexts. To reduce gender disparities in higher education and unlock the economic potential of Afghan women, the Afghan government adopted the 2016 gender admission quota policy. The policy targeted specific units of studies (known as concentrations), and on average, it reserved 37% of seats for women.

The policy shifted the admission mechanism for the targeted concentrations, transitioning from a general competitive model (score based) to a gender-specific one, where female applicants competed with other females, and male applicants competed with other males in the targeted concentrations. Conversely, admission for the remaining concentrations persisted under the traditional competitive framework. In my research (Najam 2024), I use administrative data of Kankor examination (2013—2018) to assess the impact of the gender quota on women's admission to higher education and score-related outcomes (Kankor score as a measure of student quality) at the matriculation stage (measured by changes in the outcomes at the concentration level). Furthermore, I examine the differential impacts of quota policy based on students' socioeconomic status and the competitiveness of the academic programmes.

The enactment of the policy by concentrations creates a natural experiment, establishing targeted and non-targeted groups. I examine variations in the adoption of the gender quota policy across concentrations and over time. I assess the policy's effectiveness in increasing the share of female students and its impact on score-related outcomes using a difference-in-differences approach combined with an event study design. I construct the outcomes at the concentration level and assess and compare changes in the post-policy period relative to the pre-policy period between the two groups.

I find that the quota policy increased the share of women in the treated concentrations by 32% relative to the control group, and the share of female students from low socioeconomic (SES) backgrounds by 30%, as seen in Figure 2. On average, the share of women increased, mainly in concentrations where the share of women was significantly lower in the pre-quota period.

Additionally, I find that the policy successfully increased women's admission to highly selective academic programmes, where they were significantly less likely to attain admission previously. Notably, the share of female applicants admitted from low SES backgrounds nearly doubled in highly competitive fields.

However, this increase in the share of female students is associated with a decrease in the score-related outcome – specifically, a significant decrease in the Kankor score ratio of female to male applicants in the targeted concentrations by 4%, driven by a reduction in the average score of marginally admitted female applicants. This modest decrease indicates that the Kankor scores of marginally admitted female applicants, while slightly lower, were still largely on par with those of the admitted male applicants. The drop in score might be a source of concern. Nonetheless, Akhtari et al. (2024) and Khanna (2020) provide suggestive evidence that such policies can enhance marginalised communities' investment in pre-college education—driven by the prospects of future return on investment in the sense of access to educational opportunities—which can potentially rebound the average score of targeted groups in the long term.

Figure 2: Quota increased the share of female students and the share of female students from low-SES

Quota increased the share of female students and the share of female students from low-SES

Source: See Najam (2024) for full results, policy details, and discussion.

Addressing structural barriers and enhancing the quality and relevance of higher education are pivotal steps toward unlocking the significant potential for economic development and job creation in LMICs. By ensuring that education systems not only evolve to meet the demands of a growing college-age population but also become more accessible to marginalised communities—who stand to gain significantly from such investments—these nations can leverage higher education as a catalyst for sustainable equitable growth. Integrating strategies like affirmative action can effectively address gender disparities, further amplifying the positive impact of higher education on society and the economy.


Akhtari, M, N Bau, and J-W P Laliberté (2024), "Affirmative action and pre-college human capital", American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, 16(1): 1–32.

Bertrand, M, R Hanna, and S Mullainathan (2010), "Affirmative action in education: Evidence from engineering college admissions in India", Journal of Public Economics, 94(1): 16–29.

Evans, D K, M Akmal, and P Jakiela (2021), "Gender gaps in education: The long view", IZA Journal of Development and Migration, vol.12, no.1, https://doi.org/10.2478/izajodm-2021-0001

Holzer, H and D Neumark (2000), "Assessing affirmative action", Journal of Economic Literature, 38(3): 483–568.

Khanna, G (2020), "Does affirmative action incentivize schooling? Evidence from India", The Review of Economics and Statistics, 102(2): 219–233.

Mello, U (2022), "Centralized admissions, affirmative action, and access of low-income students to higher education", American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, 14(3): 32.

Najam, R (2024), "Closing the gap: Effect of a gender quota on women’s access to education in Afghanistan", Economics of Education Review, 99: 102509. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.econedurev.2024.102509. World Bank Working Paper available here.

Oliveira, R, A Santos, and E Severnini (2024), "Affirmative action in Brazil’s higher education system", VoxDev. https://voxdev.org/topic/education/affirmative-action-brazils-higher-education-system 

Our World in Data (n.d), "Primary, secondary and tertiary education enrolment and completion rates, World", https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/primary-secondary-enrollment-completion-rates 

Psacharopoulos, G and H A Patrinos (2018), "Returns to investment in education: a decennial review of the global literature", Education Economics, 26(5): 445–458.


[1] The statistics pertain to the period preceding the Taliban's resurgence to power in 2021.