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Taliban stops female Afghan students from going abroad for scholarships



“After the Taliban shut universities for women, my only hope was to get a scholarship which would help me study abroad,” says 20-year-old Afghan student Natkai.

Natkai’s name has been changed for her own safety.

The Taliban have cracked down hard on women who oppose them.

Natkai says she kept studying even though there was little chance of her ever attending university in her homeland.

Then she was granted a scholarship to study at the University of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) from Emirati billionaire businessman Sheikh Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor.

The scholarships for Afghan women were announced in December 2022 after the Taliban banned women from university.

The BBC understands a total of 100 Afghan women have been successful in gaining these scholarships. Some Afghan students living abroad have already travelled to Dubai.

On Wednesday 23 July, Natkai said goodbye to her family and set off for the airport.

But her hopes were soon dashed.

“When the Taliban officials saw our tickets and student visas, they said girls are not allowed to leave Afghanistan on student visas,” she tells me, her voice breaking.

Stopped from travelling
Natkai is one of at least 60 girls who were turned away from the airport.

Photos seen by the BBC show young girls wearing black hijabs or headscarves standing next to their luggage in a state of shock and devastation.

The Taliban has banned solo travel for women and only allow them to go abroad with their husbands or a related male companion such as a brother, uncle or father, known as a mahram, a male escort.

But even this was not enough.

“Three girls who had a mahram were inside the plane,” says Natkai. “But officials from the Vice and Virtue ministry took them off the plane.”

The rest of the students were too frightened to talk to the media.

A young man we’re calling Shams Ahmad, accompanied his sister to the airport and described the distress.

“The scholarship gave new hope to my sister after the universities were closed here. She left home with hope and returned in tears,” he says. “All her rights have been taken away.”

Mr Ahmad says some of the women even borrowed money to pay for a visa for a male companion to accompany them but were still stopped.

“Some of these girls are so helpless and poor. They don’t even have 400 Afghanis (£4; $5) for the document verification fee requested by the foreign affairs ministry.”

The University of Dubai and Mr Al Habtoor have confirmed the girls were stopped.

Mr Al Habtoor posted a video message in English on X, formerly known as Twitter. In it, he criticises the Taliban authorities, saying men and women are equal under Islam.

The video also contains a voice note in English from an Afghan girl who was stopped at the airport.

“We are right now in the airport but unfortunately, the government is not allowing us to go to Dubai,” she says. “Even they don’t allow those who have a mahram. I don’t know what to do. Please help us.”

International reaction

This latest Taliban action has created dismay among rights groups and diplomats.

“This is an important and alarming step beyond the extraordinary level of cruelty the Taliban already engage in by denying girls and women education,” says Heather Barr of Human Rights Watch.

“This is holding them prisoner to prevent others from helping them study.”

The former United Nations youth representative from Afghanistan, Shkula Zadran, has posted a message urging the university not to give up on the girls.

The Taliban have not issued any statement or clarification.

A spokesperson for the Vice and Virtue ministry, Mohammad Sadiq Akif Muhajir, told the BBC they were not aware of the incident.

A senior Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, also declined to comment, saying he was travelling and did not have any information.

Natkai is in a state of despondency.

She had graduated from high school and was preparing for the university entrance exam just as the Taliban took power on 15 August 2021.

Natkai thought she had found a way to follow her dreams. She says she has nothing to say to the Taliban because “they don’t accept or respect women”.

She calls on the world not to abandon Afghan girls or their education.

“I missed this opportunity in a country where it is a crime to be a girl. I’m very sad and I don’t know what to do or what will happen to me next.”

(BBC News)


56,000 Pakistan schools shut over eye virus outbreak




More than 56,000 Pakistan schools will shut for the rest of the week in a bid to curb a mass outbreak of a contagious eye virus, officials said Wednesday.

Millions of students will stay home from tomorrow after Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province, announced blanket closures having recorded 357,000 conjunctivitis cases since the start of the year.

The fast-spreading eye infection causes redness, itchiness and discharge from the eyes and contamination can spread through hand contact, as well as coughing and sneezing.

“The closure has been announced as a proactive measure to give maximum protection to students against the infection,” Punjab education department spokesman Zulfiqar Ali told AFP.

There are 127,000,000 residents in eastern Punjab province and 56,000 state schools, as well as thousands of independent schools also subject to the shutdown.

“We hope this will break the cycle of the infection in the province,” Ali said.

Schools across Pakistan had already been due to shut on Friday owing to a public religious holiday, however many would usually open over the weekend to provide extra classes or stage exams.

Punjab authorities said students would be screened at school gates when they reopen Monday.


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India suspends visas for Canadians




India has suspended visa services for Canadian citizens amid an escalating row over the killing of a Sikh separatist on Canadian soil.

Visa service provider BLS posted a message from India’s mission blaming “operational reasons” for the decision.

Tensions flared this week after Canada said it was investigating “credible allegations” linking India with the murder of the separatist leader.

India angrily rejected the allegation calling it “absurd”.

Analysts say relations between the countries, which have been strained for months, are now at an all-time low.

The message about the suspension of visas was first posted on the BLS website on Thursday.

“Important notice from Indian Mission: Due to operational reasons, with effect from 21 September 2023, Indian visa services have been suspended till further notice,” it read.

India’s foreign ministry refused to comment on the matter and asked the BBC to refer to the BLS website.

The move comes a day after India issued an advisory urging its citizens travelling to or living in Canada to “exercise utmost caution” in view of the “growing anti-India activities and politically-condoned hate crimes and criminal violence in Canada”.

Canada has 1.4 million people of Indian origin, making up 3.7% of the country’s population, according to the 2021 census. India also sends the highest number of international students to Canada – in 2022, they made up 40% of total overseas students at 320,000.

(BBC News)

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One in 10 people now aged 80 or older




For the first time ever, more than one in 10 people in Japan are now aged 80 or older.

National data also shows 29.1% of the 125 million population is aged 65 or older- a record.

Japan has one of the lowest birth-rates in the world and has long struggled with how to provide for its ageing population.

It has the world’s oldest population, measured by the proportion of people aged 65 or up, the United Nations says.

That proportion stands at 24.5% in Italy and 23.6% in Finland, which rank second and third respectively.

In Japan, those aged over 65 are expected to account for 34.8% of the population by 2040, according to the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research.

The country’s elderly employment rate is among the highest across major economies – workers aged 65 or more make up more than 13% of the national workforce.

But this has done little to relieve the burden on the country’s social security spending.

Japan has approved a record budget for the next fiscal year, in part due to rising social security costs.

Efforts to boost its birth rates have also met with little success amid the growing cost of living, and notoriously long working hours.

Birth rates are slowing in many countries, including Japan’s neighbours, but the problem is particularly acute in Japan.

The country was estimated to have had fewer than 800,000 babies born last year – the lowest number since records began in the 19th century.

In the 1970s, that figure was more than two million.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said in January that his country is on the brink of not being able to function as a society because of its declining birth rate.

However authorities remain hesitant about accepting migrant workers as a solution to falling fertility.

Other countries in Asia are facing similar demographic challenges.

Last year, China’s population fell for the first time since 1961, while South Korea has reported the lowest fertility rate in the world.

(BBC News)

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