Letter from the Road #49

Path of the Friend

Elizabeth Rabia Roberts


Afghanistan: Women and Development! (3)

This is the third in a series of posts about the necessity of protecting the rights of Afghan women in creating a sustainable peace.  I discuss what is involved in that process and what can be done to help.  This analysis is based on scores of interviews from two trips to Kabul and on-going communication with women’s organizations in Afghanistan.


Social and Economic Development
We need to put women and girls at the center of the development process in Afghanistan. The economic implications of gender discrimination are considerable. To deny women the opportunity to work inside or outside the home is to deprive a poor country of labor and talent. Nicholas Kristof, in his influential book “Half the Sky” , points out that the countries in Asia and South Asia that have most successfully developed themselves out of poverty — i.e. China, Thailand, Malaysia, — are those that empowered women to work.

Women in poor countries who earn money spend it on different things than the men. Women buy food and medicine for the family. They buy uniforms so daughters can go to school. They may buy goats so they can earn more money by selling milk. They are natural entrepreneurs.  Globally the evidence is there that helping women is one of the most successful poverty-fight strategies we have in the  developing world today.

The United Nations Development Program summed up the research this way: “Women’s empowerment helps raise economic productivity and reduces infant mortality. it contributes to improved family health and nutrition and increases the chances of education for the next generation”. From my own work in population studies I also know that education and jobs reduce the number of children a woman will have.

Kristof suggests that in addition to gaining women’s earning power, boys and men may be stimulated to perform better because they can no longer think themselves superior by virtue of biology. If they have to earn their community’s respect, they may be more interested in accomplishment and motivated to help their country to develop economically and socially.

In addition, offering women an opportunity to earn money for the family can  transform a woman’s life.  It changes her status within her family. “Afghan women are traditionally not supposed to leave the house without their husbands permission, but husbands tolerate this when it is profitable”, says Betsy Beaman, director of the Women of Hope Project.

Betsy has provided small loans to about 1300 women, over 5 years, helping them set up small businesses ( private or cooperative) working as tailors and doing embroidery — a traditional Afghan craft. She helps train the village women, generally illiterate and very poor, in business skills and oversees the international marketing for their products. With the interest that comes in from the loans she contributes to creating small kitchen gardens for women in a refugee resettlement camp outside of Kabul.

I asked about the response of the husbands: “Very varied”, she replied.  One husband who is an artist designs the patterns for his wife, who now has 45 other women working for her. In some villages the husbands or fathers don’t want the women to leave the house, so Betsy has enlisted the men to bring the products to market. “ Now they feel part of it, but it is still recognized as the woman’s income”.

Fahima Vorgetts is an Afghan woman who divides her time between Virginia and Kabul with her own model for involving women in the economic development of their villages.  For years,  Fahima has been traveling the countryside to various villages in different provinces. She describes her work this way:  “First, I go to the mosque and let the men know I am in town. Then I invite the women to come together in a shura (council).  I suggest the women talk together and decide on a collective project to earn money. And the local women do it. They create a project and a means of earning money.”

Fahima uses money she raises on her own to rent the meeting room for the village women, pay someone to be the organizer of the shura for 6 months, and help the shura to market products they make. She will also help on-going shuras to raise money for bigger development projects, like village wells or a pottery kiln, once the women have shown they are able to sustain their work.  Yes, she has had death threats and when I met her she was exhausted from her travels, “but this is my life from now on” she says.

There are so many small scale women’s capacity building programs that the large international funders want to get in on it.  In the last year there are many more USAID requests for proposals specifically headed by and for women. “The problem is the large international funders want to spend a lot of money fast.  Work with women in villages takes time. You need to build trust — with the men, between the women and with you” says Samira, director of  the Afghan Women’s Network, which is a home for 70 women’s organizations.

Santwana Dasgupta, an Indian woman who works and volunteers in Kabul, told us she has been asked several times by all male organizations if she  would “ just put my name on a contract” because the contractor is supposed to be a woman. “They would pay me to use my name” she laughs, “rather than hire a real woman to do the job”.

Today through our Spirit In Action Flow Fund, my husband, Elias, and I  raise money from friends and colleagues and give the money away directly in Afghanistan. No overhead or  big administrative costs.  Through our Flow Fund we are now supporting vocational training for girls in Khost, (a Taliban controlled province on the Pakistan border). We supply uniforms, cushions and supplies to a home schooling effort in Wardak where the Taliban burned down the original girls school. We help pay the rent for a girls’ school in Kabul that strives for national excellence. Through our micro-grants women are making jewelry and pottery and girls from displaced persons camps are helping support their families by making  and selling environmentally friendly fuel briquettes.

We believe, without a doubt that the rise of women is a prerequisite for peace and the development of Afghanistan.

If you would like to contribute to these projects you may do so at www.pathofthefriend.org

In the next blog I will consider what  we can  do to help the women of Afghanistan.

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