|Leah (on the right) at the UWHAW meeting,|
photo by Jill Moll
While developing agricultural supply chains as director of a counter narcotics strategy for regional stability in rural Afghanistan, she advanced the role of Afghan women in agriculture. Her project provided the poor with a means of livelihood (so they would not have time or inclination to participate in “illegal activities”) keeping kitchen gardens, raising chickens and selling over 90% of their produce in the markets. They were instructed in food security and nutrition. Their menfolk appreciated the returns when they took the eggs and vegetables to market and thus saw the point of the women’s endeavours. Literacy and numeracy levels are extremely low, and saving and investing were foreign concepts in this “pocket economy.” Leah described the creative methods used to educate these women. For example, to teach them how to manage their finances, they put eggs into three jars: the first was the “happy jar” containing money for immediate spending on themselves and their families, the contents of the second jar represented the money needed to replace chickens that had died, the third jar represented the amount to be kept aside for chicken feed and other such expenses.
In a recent poll only 20% of women in Afghanistan defined themselves as working people. Leah interviewed 300 women while in the country, finding out what were felt to be their obstacles to work. She asked the UWHAW group what we thought those obstacles might be. Together with Leah we came up with …
- Lack of acceptance by the men.
- Limited access to education and job opportunities.
- The need for security at the workplace.
- A requirement for “cultural conformity”––menfolk sometimes being ashamed of having a working woman in their family.
- In a “country without newspapers,” limited access to information.
- Lack of financial or legal advice.
If a woman becomes widowed and remarries, her children are repossessed by her previous in-laws. Therefore, depending on their permission, or how rich or liberal they are, a young widow cannot remarry without losing access to her children, but she can go to work! The Red Crescent offers such women crafts, livelihoods and places to work.
Practically speaking, all-women initiatives in Afghanistan are harder to establish than when men are involved, although a bid for international funds stands a better chance if women are on the payroll, so all male ventures are not a good idea either.
We outsiders must take notice of the men of Afghanistan. Many are “tormented, coerced and depressed” because of their traumatic experiences. Some are “pure of heart”. This is a “whole nation suffering from battered-wife syndrome!” but there are multiple truths. Sometimes, for example, corruption itself can lead to good things, such as the establishment of laws for the protection of wealth, even if it is ill-gotten wealth.
Leah thinks that a change in women’s rights in Afghanistan has to be gradual. She reminded us that it has taken a long time for women to achieve equal status with men in Canada, although by now, Canada is a global leader in this regard. If the Afghan men lose face by too much hasty change, that gives a “potential for retribution” in the future. She described a business meeting in conservative Jalalabad where the men sat (on the floor) taking part with vigour and all the women at the meeting stood apart at one side of the room huddled in their shawls, merely observing. In the city of Kabul, though, it is quite different these days, with men and women making equal contributions.