Classes lift Afghanistan's war widows

Vocational training gives Afghan women the means to care for themselves and their children.

Muslima cradles a scared chicken in her arms, tending to it with all the careful treatment due a precious object. She gently hands it to her teacher, Farima, who is lecturing a roomful of about 25 women on the best way to care for the bird. Farima's students, all widows, are eagerly attentive.

Although long past school age, these women - most of whom have children of their own - have never been to school themselves. This dark, mud-walled room in Muslima's home is their first classroom. They sit on the floor leaning against the walls, their faces lined in concentration. This poultry-raising class has the potential to guide them from unemployment to self-sufficiency.

In Afghanistan, where many families have lost husbands and sons during 23 years of continual warfare, widows have suffered a particularly severe fate. In a nation with a fractured infrastructure and, at $250 a year, one of the lowest per-capita incomes in the world, many widows are left without relatives able to take them in or offer even modest financial support.

In Kabul alone there are an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 of these women. Only about one in five Afghan women can read and write, one of the lowest rates in the world. Uneducated, illiterate, and lacking basic job skills, many widows are left to fend for themselves.

During Taliban times, severe restrictions on women denied them the right to leave their homes. Even today, with the Taliban defeated, many Afghan women are still reluctant to step outside their houses, and traveling or walking anywhere without a male escort can be an uncomfortable experience for some.

Their attempts to earn a living usually mean fighting against societal taboos. Without education, these widows at best can only use the skills they know from home life. They might clean houses or become tailors.

The most desperate are reduced to begging or even to prostitution.

Food assistance helps, but it's not enough

Aware of the widows' plight, the international relief group CARE started the Kabul Widows Emergency Food Program in 1996. Today, approximately 10,000 widows and their families - about 60,000 people - receive food assistance every month. A large sack of wheat flour, a smaller sack of beans, cooking oil, and salt provide a family of five about half of their monthly food requirements. Home visits by aid workers confirm a family's eligibility: a female-headed household with no property and at least two children, and no son older than 16. A typical widow in the program is an illiterate 30-year-old with five children.

In a barren field on the edge of Kabul, an endless blue line of burqa-clad figures patiently wait their turn to show their documents and receive their monthly handouts. Samia Merza Mohammed, mother of six, heads out with her wheelbarrow full of foodstuffs. Her husband was killed 10 years ago. She has received food aid for seven years.

Yet as grateful as the widows are for the assistance, simply feeding them will not liberate them from a life of dependency.

"I used to wash clothes at other people's houses," says Samia. "I don't have any other job because I can't read or write."

That's why CARE's program for Humanitarian Assistance for Women of Afghanistan (HAWA) includes vocational training and literacy classes designed for women like Muslima.

Widowed 11 years ago, with four children to feed, Muslima (who like many Afghan women, only uses her first name) was fortunate that her father-in-law supported her, but when he died two years ago, she faced destitution. Through this income-generating program, she is learning how to raise chickens so she can eat or sell their eggs. If she can earn just $1 a day, she can start supporting her family.

Poultry farming is just one of the classes the widows can take. CARE surveyed the women about their preferences for vocational training. At the top of the list were poultry raising and beauty-salon training. They also suggested carpet weaving, silk screening, spinning wool, engraving, and bagmaking.

Nafisa Nakara's classmates hold a small piece of white fabric taut as she pulls a wooden bar across a silkscreen, letting the green paint pass onto the cloth through the spaces left open by a stencil.

Once a month Nafisa takes her widow's card and joins the long line of women waiting for food handouts. Her husband died 13 years ago when a rocket hit their house. Since then, she has struggled to care for their three girls. Today she is a student in this silk-screening class. "I used to work as a maid and clean houses. During the Taliban time, we weren't allowed to leave our own homes to work," says Ms. Nakara. "But, I would go out secretly to people's houses and wash clothes," she says. "Now, with [President Hamid] Karzai, we feel so much freer. When I joined the program, I saw that there was work that is much better than the work I used to do."

Beauty salons big business

Across town in Fakhria's beauty salon, another group of women are learning how to do hair and makeup. As Carmela brushes colored shadow on Ruya's eyelids, the teacher's young daughter Shabistan watches with admiration.

Afghan women love to fix up their hair and wear makeup despite the fact that a burqa will cover their hard work. The only men who will see their labors are their husbands or close male relatives. Still, beauty salons are big business. The walls of Fakhria's salon are plastered with posters of heavily made-up Indian actresses. Afghan women model themselves on these women whom they perceive as beautiful and liberated.

Today 20 students receive their beauty certificates after completing a two-month class. The women are reimbursed for their travel expenses which is especially helpful to those from remote areas of Kabul. They "sign" their receipts with thumbprints since they cannot write their own names.

Fakhria's salon has been open for seven years, even during Taliban times. When the Taliban would take down her sign, she would put it up again - a small act of courage and defiance. She is one of the few Afghan women who runs her own business and says she is proud to teach other women her trade so they, too, can be empowered.

Once their training is completed, CARE gives the women start-up kits of hairsprays, lipsticks, and other supplies needed to open their own salons. Eventually they will be asked to repay 70 percent of the value of the kit. Also, unless they can transform their living rooms into salons, they will need money to rent space.

To deal with such needs, CARE has mobilized some of the women into self-help groups, including savings groups linked to larger microfinancing programs funded by the World Bank.

By pooling their savings, the women are able to offer small loans to group members. In similar programs elsewhere, low-income women have proven to be good credit risks.

In some countries remarriage can resolve the economic problems of widows. But in Afghanistan this is most often not a viable option.

"Afghan people love their children. But most men would say they wouldn't support another man's children. Those who are willing to get married to widows are very poor," says Zeba Sharaf Malsidiqi, a distribution officer with the food program.

All of which adds further urgency to the poultry class held several times a week in Muslima's living room. They have already built chicken coops in their backyards with donated materials. The 30 two-month-old chicks they each were given several months ago have grown into egg-producing hens.

Now in its second year, the poultry program is CARE's most successful, with 1,500 widows participating. Already widows like Muslima have become self-supporting. The women appreciate being able to work at home, where they can also care for their families and avoid uncomfortable social situations.

"We are so happy to have chickens," says Noorzia, pulling back her burqa in her excitement despite the fact that she must speak to a visitor through a male translator. Noorzia's chickens give her the highest yield in the class, 18 or 19 eggs a day.

"By selling eggs, I can buy home supplies like soap, sugar, and tea. Before, my clothes were dirty and I didn't have money to buy soap. I am so happy now that I have clean clothes. Now I can look after my children very well."

Staff writer Ilene Prusher contributed to this article. More information about CARE and its programs can be found at www.CARE.org.

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