While women’s rights have improved in recent years, especially in larger cities such as the country’s capital of Kabul, Afghanistan is still considered one of the toughest places in the world to be a woman. Many women and girls are forced to stay at home, unseen and unheard.
“There are too many barriers for women in Afghanistan. When a girl grows up, her fate hangs in the hands of the men in her family. They decide whether or not she will be treated harshly,” shares Zarifa Ahmadi.
In Afghanistan’s Kapisa province, located northeast of Kabul, women do not enjoy the same level of freedom as their peers in the capital. Many women in Kapisa cannot access their family’s finances, make decisions for themselves, or even move about freely without the permission of their male relatives. However, the province’s proximity to Kabul has offered new opportunities for women to explore entrepreneurial activities.
Cultural Norms Pose Barriers to Making a Living
As in all war-torn countries, women and girls suffer disproportionately. Whether they are mothers, sisters, or wives, they are often sidelined and blocked from making decisions for their families. With more than two million women left widowed by Afghanistan’s lengthy war, fending for their families’ survival is their highest priority.
For Zarifa Ahmadi, the country’s restrictive gender roles posed extreme barriers for her to earn a living and support her family. The 41-year-old mother of two lived in Iran with her family as refugees for 14 years before returning home to Afghanistan.
When Zarifa’s family resettled in Afghanistan, she worried about how she would provide for her children. “We did not have enough money to afford the basics, and sometimes we could not even afford food. It was heartbreaking to send my children to school without breakfast,” said Zarifa.
As a woman in Afghanistan, Zarifa knew it would be difficult to find a job. She struggled for months to find a means to support her family. Zarifa’s experience is all too common in Afghanistan, where a stumbling economy and job shortages have intensified poverty across the country.
Relief International is working in Afghanistan to change the future for the country’s most vulnerable women and girls. Our programs work to lift up women like Zarifa, who possess the motivation and ideas to build a successful business, but are held back by access to resources and the gender barriers faced by women in fragile, conflict-affected settings.
The Market Edge
With support from Relief International, Zarifa launched her own business in 2017. Working out of her home, Zarifa produced tomato paste, a staple in most Afghans’ diet. She learned how to make the popular spread as a refugee living in Iran, where she worked at a large company that produced canned goods.
© Sandra Calligaro/ RI
It was the only business of its kind in her village, and Zarifa named her new business after the company she worked at in Iran, the Faisal Kohistani Food Processing Company. “I used it as a model for my company,” she says. “I hope one day I will be as successful as the original Faisal Kohistani Food Processing Company.”
After participating in Relief International’s technical trainings on marketing, packaging, and sales, Zarifa’s business began to take off. Equipped with new labels and business cards, which helped to differentiate her product in the market, Zarifa began to sell her tomato pastes at local farmers markets in her village and in surrounding neighborhoods in Kapisa. But her efforts were met with resistance by a group of conservative men in her village.
“When I first started my business, the men in my village were against the idea. They treated me very harshly,” shares Zarifa. “I was threatened several times.” This level of discrimination is all too common for women in Afghanistan who dare to defy what is expected of them.
While Afghanistan’s constitution guarantees women both the right to an education and to employment, there is a gap between agreed-upon rights and the reality on the ground.
Despite the challenges, Zarifa didn’t give up. She pressed on, attending more trainings offered through Relief International’s Women’s Enterprise, Advocacy and Training program. “When I first started my business, I used to make all of my products the traditional way, by hand,” says Zarifa. “It took at least a week to make just one batch of tomato paste.”
After a training on food production organized by Relief International, Zarifa learned how to make all of her products using new machinery. She used to produce 440 pounds of tomato paste each week. “Now, I can produce more than 2,220 pounds every two days,” Zarifa shares, beaming.
The program also helped Zarifa build a network of local farmers, business contacts, and suppliers. “They gave me exposure to other food processing factories in Kapisa through field visits and connected me with different companies working in the same field,” she says. “They also registered me with the Kapisa chamber of commerce and industries department, which gave me a business license for food processing.”
“In a good month, I make 80,000 Afghan afghani,” shares Zarifa. With that income, which is approximately $1,000, Zarifa is working to provide a better life for her family and offer job opportunities for women in her village. She now manages a team of 22 employees at her thriving small business – the majority of whom are women.
Invest in Women, Invest in Change
By 2021, the Women’s Enterprise, Advocacy and Training program will support 1,260 female entrepreneurs like Zarifa, promoting women-owned businesses working in dairy, poultry, handicrafts and food production by providing them with the technical support needed to help them stand out in crowded marketplaces.
When women have access to education, jobs, and leadership roles, communities and nations thrive. When we support the rights of women and girls, it is an investment in economic growth, a healthier workforce, and a more peaceful world.
As Afghanistan prepares to enter a new chapter, which will hopefully lead to a long-lasting peace, it will soon be up to Afghans to determine what their future will look like. For leaders looking to lift Afghanistan out of the effects of more than four decades of war, one thing is clear: progress for women means progress for all.