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Afghanistan Part 2: How We Start the Conversation

On my third day in Afghanistan, I had the opportunity to visit a group of women who use the vocational knitting skills they learned during their time with WfWI to earn an income, producing high-quality accessories for international markets. In talking with the women, they shared with me how the extra income has made a huge difference, not only in what they can afford for their families, but also in their treatment by others in their family.

Earning an income is not easy in Afghanistan. Over a third of the people are considered to be in poverty, and half of its citizens are vulnerable to falling into poverty.

I’ve seen firsthand in my time here how many challenges women, in particular, face when they try to earn an income. Passing through the marketplaces and bazaars, there are numerous women on the streets, but not one woman is selling anything at any of the stands. Though it is not acceptable for women to publicly sell items here, they often produce the goods that are sold, working in isolation in their homes. For example, the majority of Afghanistan’s economy is agriculture-based, and women do a large amount of the labor. But they don’t own the land or the means of production, and so they don’t have control over the resources they produce. Since they are excluded from the sales process, their profits are taken from them.

For women, earning an income offers new opportunities to take care of themselves and their families. When women are able to contribute to the well-being of their families in this way, it often changes how they view themselves and their worth, and has a similar impact on other family members who benefit from the increased household income.

To help women gain greater control over their economic activities, Women for Women International’s staff is training women not only in vocational and business skills, but also how to form groups and transform them into cooperatives. By joining together, women are able to build in a layer of economic security and ensure fair payment for their work. A women’s cooperative can afford to hire a male salesman and a stall in the bazaar to sell their goods, putting them in greater control. Together, women can also access larger markets in Kabul, rather than relying on smaller village markets.

When I visited with women who were members of a poultry coop in Parwan, they told me how cooperatives offered them numerous other benefits as well. They give women a sense of security and belonging as they begin to work, often for the first time. Working in a coop can also provide women a greater awareness of their own personal influence and importance in a local organization. Coops become a forum for collective problem-solving, and promote other democratic values such as equality, personal responsibility, openness, solidarity, cooperation, and social responsibility.

Women’s coops in Afghanistan face a number of hurdles though, such as high illiteracy rates, lack of access and control of resources, restricted mobility due to insecurity and gender norms, and lack of community support.

In order to create a space for women’s economic participation and protection of their rights at the community level, Women for Women International’s staff in Afghanistan has been working with local mullahs and imams, sensitizing them to women’s issues. Our Men’s Leadership Program (MLP) is an effort to raise awareness with community leaders about the negative effects that violence against women, economic restrictions, and disregard for their rights has on an entire community. After our staff works with these trusted leaders to build their understanding of women’s rights, the leaders then work with the men in their community to ensure they also understand why it’s important to safeguard women’s rights and ensure violence against them stops. It creates a space for a shift in attitudes towards women to begin. Men become allies, paving the way for much faster and certain inroads for women.

After talking with our staff about the MLP, one question stuck with me. How do you start the dialogue with male community leaders who have perhaps cared very little for women’s issues in the past? How do you get them in the room for training on women’s rights?

One of our Afghanistan staff members explained, “We never tell them they’re coming to a training program. We ask them to come and advise us. That’s how we start the conversation with them, by showing that respect to their position.”

And so far they’ve had great success. Over 560 mullahs have been invited to give our staff advice and have ended up with a better understanding of women’s rights. In turn, Women for Women International has been invited by many mullahs and imams from other villages to bring our program to the women (and men) of their communities. Change can and does happen, if done the right way.

As the end of my time in Afghanistan nears, I’m savoring each moment – the strong smell of the tea we drink all day long, the magnificent view of the Hindu Kush Mountains, and the echoes of the call to prayer after sunset. But most of all, I’ll miss the warmth, kindness, and hospitality of the many people I’ve met here. They have an amazing inner strength to keep life going, despite all the terrible things happening around them. I am humbled by their courage.

Learn more about how you can become involved in Women for Women International’s work in Afghanistan.