Afghan women start businesses, help reconstruct a torn nation
Some 10,000 women have been trained as entrepreneurs, some of whom are now economically self-sufficient.
Pashtun Begum used to beg door-to-door in Kabul, offering to wash clothes. It was the only living available, she thought, for a widow like herself.Skip to next paragraph
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These days, though, she's learning how to make marble ashtrays and decorative ornaments. An energetic mother of four, she plans to start her own business soon, making and selling her handicrafts from her home.
"I'm a widow and there isn't anyone to help me with my living," says Ms. Begum, who's attending a workshop sponsored by the All Afghan Women's Union, a training center for women entrepreneurs based in Kabul. "I want to make myself self- sufficient through this profession."
The ambitions of Begum, once considered rare for women in Afghanistan, highlight a silent but powerful revolution here. A growing number of female entrepreneurs - some 10,000 have been trained - are emerging from the isolation of war and oppression of the Taliban to contribute toward a more prosperous nation and greater independence for women, observers say.
According to Microfinance Times, 75 percent of all active microcredit borrowers in Afghanistan are now women, many of whom use their loans to start businesses. Beauty parlors, tailoring shops, and bakeries are just some of the enterprises these women now own. Their efforts, observers say, are indispensable in the struggle to reverse decades of deprivation in Afghanistan.
"If we don't have the involvement of women in the peace building process of the country, I don't think it will succeed," says Bibi Gul Mayardest, the owner of Nazu-Ana, an all-women mobile phone repair company in Kabul.
Women in Afghanistan are among the most vulnerable in the world, with a literacy rate of only 14 percent and one of the highest maternal mortality rates anywhere. Years of war and strict religious mores, that confined many to their homes, have both contributed to and compounded these problems. Particularly under the Taliban, millions of women were banned from working and going to school.
But today, observers say, women are actively building a better Afghanistan, often in small and subtle ways. In the Kabul workshop of Suraya Parlika, a pioneering female entrepreneur, Pashtun Begum and 29 other women - mostly widows, beggars, and orphans - spend the afternoon learning how to turn crude pieces of marble into polished works of art, receiving $25 a month as a stipend. When they're ready, they'll strike out on their own, selling the items themselves.
Ms. Parlika, who founded the All Afghan Women's Union 14 years ago, says entrepreneurship has restorative powers not only for women but the nation.
"Businesspeople are the ambassadors of peace in the world. If we've got women entrepreneurs, other women will feel that business can help them make a better life. This creates an atmosphere to create a factory or an industry, and brings in investors," she says.
Many agree, pointing out that women, constituting half the country's population, are a huge potential force in the reconstruction effort.
"We can have equal rights with men. This shows that we do have a role in reconstructing our country," says Karima Azimi, a young woman in Herat who, along with 120 others, has received training to start a jam and juice business from her home.