Afghanistan has made marked progress since 2001 in establishing legislative and policy frameworks to recognise women’s rights in line with international standards. However, empowering local institutions and individuals to facilitate and realise rights that exist on paper is a key missing piece.
The Afghanistan Women’s Empowerment Program (AWEP), a project of the Aga Khan Foundation Canada, is a four-year project that aims to advance women’s empowerment through increasing the social and economic participation of women in the provinces of Baghlan, Bamyan and Takhar. By creating both strong institutions as gender equality champions and an environment where women are able to choose to pursue opportunities, individual women can be empowered socially and economically to make confident decisions about their future and engage with the society around them.
But what does this look like in practice? Here are a few stories from Bamyan Province, Afghanistan:
A process invented under AWEP, community advisory boards consist of traditional and elected leaders – both men and women – who come together and discuss how they can support gender equality initiatives. In Waras Centre, a village in Bamyan, the board has been hard at work improving women's mobility and discussing, via religious leaders, why women should have the right to decide their futures. This was in response to a tragic event in 2016, when adolescent girls in the community took their own lives after being barred from pursuing a university education.
Community advisory boards engage with the community through radio-talk shows, Friday prayers, community meetings and through door-to-door consultations with families in the community.
Since 2016, the number of girls in secondary school and young women attending post-secondary in Waras Centre are at a historic high – the highest since records have been kept in the community.
Also, in Waras District, the Hamisha Bahar community-based savings group was formed in 2016, with each member contributing AFN 100 (about US$ 1.30) every month. As of June 2019, their accumulated savings was AFN 34,000 (US$ 437).
The savings group initially helped women send their daughters to school. Then in 2019, the members opened a shop for their newly established dairy business, which now earns them AFN 6,500 every month (US$ 87). This is split amongst all the women contributing milk to the business.
“The shop has made us want to learn new businesses. We have heard of other women supported by [AKF] starting honey business and we are interested in learning how to raise bees,” says Zulaikha, the group’s leader.
Increasingly, women who meet through community-based savings groups are seizing the opportunity to partner together in business. In Qawn Yari village, 15 women who were connected through a savings group in their community banded together with a common interest in raising sheep. Together, they applied for enterprise funding, supported by the programme. The fund allowed them to borrow "from themselves" to invest, repay and invest again.
The Qawn Yari enterprise has now found ways to make money through sheep-raising all year round: lambs in the spring, meat and milk products in the summer and fall, and wool sweaters and coats in the winter.
“For every investment we make, we can make it back, sometimes triple. For example, I bought one sheep, and after selling its milk, its lamb, the wool products and finally the adult sheep itself, I had made almost triple what I had borrowed!”, says Suraya, leader of the Qawn Yari enterprise.
Their five-year plan is to establish regular ties with larger centres and to perhaps open additional shops in Bamyan Centre, especially focused on their wool products. One day they hope to open a shop in the capital, Kabul, where they have found clients for their wool coats.
Civil society is vital for communities to function. For gender equality, women’s organisations, or women-led organisations, can be crucial in creating an environment that is suitable for women to pursue education, or economic pursuits.
The Organization for Better Tomorrow in Afghanistan is one of six women’s organisations that was supported by AWEP. Based in Bamyan Centre, they are focused on women's economic empowerment – specifically, getting more women into professional roles, including in public service.
“There is a change in Bamyan... People are willing to open their minds to women in the workplace and in leadership positions, ” says Hayatullah, Finance Director, Organization for Better Tomorrow in Afghanistan.
With the first micro-grant they received from AWEP, they were able to train 344 young women on job-seeking and CV writing. Within a couple of months, around 35 had already found long-term or permanent roles within the government.
The road to gender equality remains long. But these stories from Bamyan inspire hope for a new generation of empowered Afghan women and girls.
This text was adapted from a presentation published by AKF Canada.