Like many first-time mothers I knew nothing about looking after a baby. We wanted to hire a nanny who spoke English so I could communicate all my misguided knowledge about baby care. We interviewed a number of young women recommended to us. They had learned English in refugee camps in Pakistan, but they were inexperienced when it came to child care. Ultimately, we met with a lovely woman in her thirties. She didn’t speak any English. She picked up our daughter with ease and proceeded to answer, in Persian, our questions about what would she do if the child was crying. Finally, having kept our daughter quiet and amused, she turned to our translator and said: “ I have raised seven children, do they have any more questions?”
We hired Zeba on the spot.
Like Zeba, most Afghan women are incredibly resourceful and have important skills, yet social and economic barriers prevent them from reaching their full potential. Insecurity, persistent social norms, illiteracy, and lack of employment opportunities and access to markets prevent many Afghan women from formally contributing to Afghanistan’s economy.
The number of civilian deaths due to the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan hit a record high in 2017. According to the United Nations’ Afghanistan mission, the number of women casualties increased by 23 percent, an unprecedented level since 2001. Lack of security poses a threat to women’s economic empowerment as fewer families will back women’s public participation if they don’t feel they will be safe.
In addition to conflict, women also face harassment and social barriers that prevent them from being part of the formal economic sector. Research by Women and Children’s Legal Research Foundation showed that nine out of ten Afghan women living in seven provinces around the country have faced harassment. Surveyed women said they faced harassment in workplaces and educational institutions as well as on the streets. According to the Asia Foundation’s Survey of the Afghan People, 74 percent of Afghans say women should have the right to work outside the home, however obstacles such as harassment prevent the vast majority from doing so.
Afghanistan also has one of the lowest literacy rates in the world and women are disproportionately impacted, largely due to six years of Taliban rule when girls’ schools were closed. As a result, according to The World Bank only 24% of Afghan women over the age of 15 can read and write. Without these skills, women are far less likely to access formal employment opportunities. Without security, safety, and literacy most Afghan women, especially those in rural areas, cannot access markets. As a result, less than 20 percent of Afghans surveyed say women contributes to their household income.
These obstacles not only violate women’s right to be economically empowered and self-sufficient, but also harm the country as a whole. According to the World Bank, Afghanistan’s per capita income is the lowest in South Asia. The country’s unemployment rate is at 40 percent and 36% of the country lives under the poverty line. This means more than one in three Afghans do not have enough money to buy food or cover other basic needs. The majority of this poverty is concentrated in rural areas where women face particularly high rates of social and economic exclusion.
The good news is that we already have the solution to decreasing and maybe even eradicating poverty: women. A study by McKinsey Global Institute shows that with women’s equal participation in the labor force, the global GDP could increase by 26 percent to $28 trillion dollars. Even if every country matched the gender parity rates of its “fastest growing neighborhood, global GDP could increase by up to $12 trillion in 2025,” the report argues. While the study doesn’t include Afghanistan, it shows that in doing so, South Asia and the Middle East and North Africa regions could increase their GDP by up to 18 percent.
In addition to increasing the number of women in the labor force, we need to invest in decreasing inequalities in access to tools and resources for women who are already a part of it. For example, according to the International Labor Organization, women make more than 40 percent of the world’s agricultural force, however they control less than 20 percent of the land. They also often lack tools and resources such as fertilizer, seeds and consistent access to water. World Bank estimates show that if women had access to these “productive resources”, up to 150 million fewer people would face hunger every day. In Afghanistan, of employed women workers, the majority work in agriculture and livestock sectors, but despite legal rights for land ownership, only 10 percent of Afghan women own land independently. Increasing women’s control and access over resources and land can increase productivity in rural communities impacted by poverty.
Reports and statistics from Afghanistan and around the world prove what we at Women for Women International (WfWI) have known for nearly 25 years: stronger women build stronger economies and stronger nations. This is why we have been providing women survivors of conflict and war in eight countries and regions around the world with direct cash and an empowering training program that equips them with the skills they need to rebuild their lives. Through our yearlong program women not only learn vocational skills, but also gain business and numeracy skills and become aware of their health needs and human rights. As a result, their daily personal earnings increase from $0.34 at enrollment to $1.07 at graduation. While at the beginning of our program, 33 percent of the women we serve around the world worry about running out of food, by the end only six percent do. In addition to economic gain, women we serve learn about their rights and their involvement in financial decision-making at home increases by 28 percent.
In Afghanistan, we’ve served nearly 110,00 women since 2002. We’ve trained women in vocational skills like animal husbandry, agriculture and agribusiness, tailoring, and handicrafts. On average the monthly personal earnings of the women we serve in Afghanistan increases from less than three dollars at enrollment to more than $38 at graduation. These changes go beyond statistics. They impact real women in one of the hardest places on earth to be a woman.
Take for example Zarin. A 34-year old mother of five, she struggled in poverty and without access to jobs, but she always had big dreams for her children. She decided to join WfWI’s program after she learned about if from other women in her community. She already had some tailoring skills, but at the program she solidified them and learned numeracy and business skills as well as about her health and rights.
“During the year, I gained a lot of experience. I learned how to do business. I learned about women’s health and how to protect our health and be clean,” Zarin says.
Today Zarin has opened a tailoring shop in a crowded market in Kabul, something uncommon for Afghan women. She not only pays her eldest daughter’s university fees and supports her family but also employs six other women.
Zarin’s shop is a success and she dreams of expanding her shop and providing more women with employment opportunities. “When we make our own money, we don’t need to depend on men for anything.”
Zarin is not alone. During our fifteen years of experience in Afghanistan we’ve met many women who have proven themselves champions of their own lives and that of other marginalized women in their communities. From Zeba to Zarin, the women of Afghanistan are resilient, courageous, and capable. With the right tools and skills, they have the ability to pull their families, neighborhoods, and even country out of poverty. For sustainable change and to address poverty in Afghanistan, we have to prioritize Afghan women’s economic empowerment. They are the hope.
About the author: Kathleen Campbell is the Vice President for Programs at Women for Women International. Prior to WfWI, Campbell was the Senior Deputy Assistant to the Administrator in USAID’s Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs. Campbell, a Harvard Law School graduate, has over two decades of international experience managing development and humanitarian programs.
This article was first published on Central Asia Institute’s Journey of Hope 2017 Magazine.