As of 2022, women in Uzbekistan make up 49.7 percent of the total population (down from 50.6 percent in 1991), yet only 13.2 percent of women over 25 have completed higher education compared to 20 percent of men in the same age category. Overall, only 17.7 percent of women in Uzbekistan have university degrees across the country, as opposed to 19.7 percent of men. In some regions, the number is much lower. In Qashqadaryo, for example, only 8 percent of women have graduated from universities, while in the Tashkent region 9.1 percent of women have.
Higher education is especially valued in Uzbekistan. It is seen as a guarantee for attaining a stable job (though not necessarily a high-paying job). The number of higher education institutions in the country has skyrocketed in the past six years – from 77 in 2016 to 154 in 2021. This growth, however, has not met the full demand yet. In 2015, the admission rate for public higher education institutions was 9.5 percent (of 605,836 applicants, only 57,800 were granted admission). This year, there are over 1.2 million applicants for only 121,395 places at public state universities, making the admission rate around 10 percent. That’s a steep drop since 1996, when nearly half of applicants (46.2 percent) were able to start pursuing their college degrees.
Although higher education is valued across Uzbek society, there is a significant gender gap among university students. As of the 2021-2022 academic year, there are 808,400 students at Uzbek public universities of which women accounted for 45.6 percent – 369,00 female students compared to 439,400 male ones. In 2019, only 38.3 percent of 65,400 bachelor’s degree graduates were women.
The gender gap is particularly pronounced in certain fields, with science, engineering, manufacturing, and construction majors predominantly pursued by male students . In 2020, only 30.1 percent of the graduates of those majors were women (up from 27 percent in 2017). The gender gap is obvious when looking at institutions tailored to those fields.
For example, at Tashkent State Transport university, 92 percent of students are male, and at Tashkent State Technical University that figure is 89 percent. This trend is observed not only in the capital, Tashkent, but in the regions too. Bukhara Engineering Technological Institute, for instance, has a ratio of 83 percent to 17 percent male-to-female students.
Meanwhile, female students dominate in language and teaching majors – at Tashkent State University of the Uzbek language and literature, 84 percent of all students are women and at Tashkent State Pedagogical University named after Nizami, women make up 74 percent of all students. The tendency is the same in the regions: Samarkand State Institute of Foreign Languages has 71 percent female students.. Nearly half of the female students at higher education institutions (126,300 out of 260,000) were majoring in teaching fields last year.
Girls choosing stereotypically “female” majors over STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields is at least partly due to societal expectations. Women are expected to take care of their household and children after marriage, which prevents many from pursuing full-time work. Teaching careers, on the other hand, are viewed as more flexible, especially private institutions as opposed to government-run schools.
The employment rate in Uzbekistan is higher among single women (52 percent) than among married women (36 percent). In a 2020 survey, 43 percent of unemployed women reported that they were not seeking a job because they have to take care of their household, while only 7 percent of men cited the same reason. A STEM major is viewed as more challenging, especially for young girls who marry early. In 2021, in one-third of registered marriages, the bride was under 20 years old. Women are expected to give birth within a year or two after marriage. Yet public universities are not equipped with kindergartens or nursing rooms.
The gender disparity in Uzbekistan’s education sector can also be observed on the teaching end. In the 2021-2022 academic year, 68 percent (343,961) of teachers at public schools were women compared to 32 percent (158,726) male teachers. Meanwhile, at universities, where income and social status are higher, women made up only 44.1 percent of teaching professionals and professors as of 2020. In some regions, the number is much lower. In Sirdaryo, for example, just 29 percent of university teachers are women; in Jizzakh it’s 30 percent.
Women having less education affects their financial status, which makes them more vulnerable to domestic abuse, among other difficulties. In a 2021 survey, 42 percent of female respondents reported that they tolerate domestic abuse due to financial reasons – they fear they cannot provide for themselves and their children if they seek a divorce. They have reason to think that way: As of 2022, out of the 290,000 men who legally have to pay child support, 172,000 men did not do so, despite court decisions.
Tashkent has taken measures to close the gender gap and to attract more female students. In 2021, for example, 2,000 girls from underprivileged families were granted government funds to pursue an undergraduate degree. In March 2022, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev announced that a national program for supporting women’s education for 2022-2026 had been adopted. The program envisions providing girls with interest-free loans for university fees for up to seven years as well as establishing new universities and technical schools just for women. In addition, master’s degree programs are now free of charge for women at public higher education institutions in Uzbekistan. To this end, Tashkent is allocating at least 200 billion Uzbek som annually. The “El-yurt umidi (Hope of the Nation)” foundation will allocate funds for 60 girls and women annually to get a university degree abroad – 50 at the undergraduate level and 10 at the master’s level.
All these measures aim to financially support women pursuing higher education. While secondary education is free of charge and mandatory in Uzbekistan, higher education is not. In Uzbek society, it is mostly parents who pay university fees and due to widespread patriarchal values, parents do not have a problem taking on the financial burden of putting their sons through college, but do not always do so for their daughters. Local traditions dictate that the youngest son stays with his parents and takes care of them when they grow old. Girls, however, are often seen as a “burden,” both in terms of finance (feeding, clothing, sheltering) and in terms of an honor (girls must marry young and as virgins, else they bring shame to their families). Compulsory education is one measure that prevents many parents (especially in the regions) from marrying their daughters off as early as possible. In 2021 alone, over 93,000 girls under the age of 20 were married.
The government incentivizing more women to get university degrees is the right move at the right time. So far, increasing the number of higher education institutions in the country has been fruitful. As the number of universities grew, so did the percentage of educated women. In 2016, only 5.6 percent of women across the country had a university degree; now it is 17.7 percent . The number is expected to grow dramatically in the coming years, which should also help further narrow the gender gap. But whether educated women will then enter the job market, especially after marrying, is yet to be seen.