The expected withdrawal of U.S. and other international troops from Afghanistan in 2014 will create a crucial moment for that country. Among the many challenges will be the need to preserve and even advance the notable gains women have achieved over the past decade. Because their education and status in society is directly related to health and the overall well-being of communities, International Women's Day 2013 is a natural rallying point for leaders in Afghanistan to consider how to advance women's opportunities as a way to address poverty.
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For more than a decade, the United States has invested extensive amounts of blood and treasure in Afghanistan. If that country is to move forward, the acceptable "new normal" must include security and economic growth at the national, community and individual levels. Essential to future prosperity is providing economic opportunities for women and girls in a safe environment.
Traditionally, half the Afghan population has had limited participation in wider society. A significant opportunity for change exists by tapping into women's economic and development potential. Says former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, "When it comes to the enormous challenge of our time—to systematically and relentlessly pursue more economic opportunity in all of our lands—we don't have a person to waste, and we certainly don't have a gender to waste, either."
The experience of Catholic Relief Services in Afghanistan can inform discussions of opportunities for women through 2014 and beyond. Even small opportunities can make a big difference.
Helping Women Helps Families
For Bonu, the poorest woman in a desperately poor village in Ghor province, issues of politics in Kabul take a back seat to a more basic dilemma: how to add nutrients to her family's diet. She lives on plain wheat naan and weak green tea—every meal, every day, every year of her life. It's the same for her husband, three children and sister, who has a disability. Once a year, during the Eid-ul-Fitr holiday, a local charity gives the family a piece of lamb or goat. Otherwise, it's back to naan and tea.
Her neighbors nod their heads knowingly as Bonu describes her struggle to feed her children. The salary her husband receives as a shepherd for a neighbor who owns a small flock of sheep is a portion of the wheat harvest, which must last his family all year. Bonu's worldly possessions are the clothes her family wears, some blankets to stay warm during the harsh mountain winters and two chickens. Every 2 to 3 days, she may get an egg, which she promptly sells for a few coins. After all, she says, "How can I divide one egg between three children and my sister? This way, I can buy cooking oil for them to dip their bread for a meal twice a week. Then they all benefit."
To bring sustainable nutrition to the family, CRS recently rallied Bonu's community to help her build and plant a keyhole garden. Neighbors brought their donkeys to carry stones and soil up the steep hillside.
This simple raised-bed garden will provide Bonu with a steady supply of radishes, lettuce and turnips. Despite temperatures that drop to freezing, the vegetables will be available year-round, thanks to special plastic sheeting that creates a small greenhouse.
"It made us happy to help Bonu in this way," says her neighbor Fatima. "By helping with construction, we learned how to make the garden if we want one for ourselves."
According to Abdul Malek, the garden project's team leader, "Women with keyhole gardens will be able to grow vegetables through the winter, improving the nutrition of the whole family throughout the coldest months. And because we work with the very poorest families, adding new vegetables to their diet will make a big difference in their nutrition levels and vitamins."
Education in Hard-to-Reach Places
Wori Borgud is one of those remote villages where the closest government school is a 3-hour walk in one direction. That distance is enough to prevent almost all of the boys in the village from attending school, and is a complete barrier to girls hoping to reach a classroom.
"In general, communities will not allow girls to travel more than a mile and a half to attend school," says Christina Avildsen, education program coordinator for CRS in Afghanistan. "Establishing classrooms in the community is one of the most important steps toward ensuring that girls are able to attend school."
CRS has done just that: removing one of the most tangible barriers to girls' education by establishing classes within villages. Local outreach teams contact village leaders to gauge their support for education in the community. Those leaders then find space for a classroom and a community member to work as a teacher. Community support for the school—from fixing up a classroom to seeing CRS train a local teacher—ensures that families, in turn, will keep the school open for the long term.
In addition to coaching teachers on classroom management and instruction skills, CRS trainers emphasize gender and children's rights. Teachers learn how educating both genders benefits the community and how to build support for the right of all children to an education. Orazu, a 5th grade teacher outside Herat, in western Afghanistan, says, "We have true freedom when all of our children can go to school."
When a girl reaches adulthood, though, the CRS education effort doesn't stop. Women can participate in special programs to complete the official government primary school curriculum in half the time. They use their newly acquired literacy and math skills to help their husbands and families with business, and stay informed about events in wider Afghanistan. One woman says that talking to friends is "more interesting" since she learned how to read in the adult education classes.
Access to education for boys and girls has been a centerpiece of CRS' work in Afghanistan over the past decade. Since 2006, CRS Afghanistan has helped more than 13,500 women and girls further their education or attend classes for the first time. And in the most remote places, it can mean helping a community start a school from scratch.
Incomes When Jobs Are Off-Limits
Women in rural areas of Afghanistan lead lives full of rich family relationships with ties to faith, culture and history. But they face barriers when they need to earn an income.
In a community an hour's drive from Herat, for example, women have traditionally worked in their homes while men labor in the fields growing crops that bring in cash. Widows, though, do not have any opportunities to earn money.
"We widows have had to rely on our extended families to share the little money they could," says Nejiba, leader of a widow's group organized by CRS. "We didn't have a way to earn our own money."
These widows, usually poor even when their husbands were alive, could survive on food shared by their families and communities but had no reliable supply of cash to buy medicine, cloth or household goods. They needed a way to work while maintaining their culture and traditions.
According to Michelle Neukirchen, head of CRS programs in Afghanistan, CRS livelihoods programs help women find business opportunities that meet their needs, focusing on products useful to their neighbors. "This particular group settled on raising lambs as something that could bring in money and largely be done within the home," she says.
CRS began by providing a female lamb to each widow. Project staff taught the women how to keep the lambs healthy with the right diet and regular vaccinations. Now that the first ewes have given birth to their own lambs, women are excited for the potential of selling wool and milk from several sheep.
When Nejiba speaks of her two ewes, one she received from CRS and one born a few months ago, she focuses on the flock's growth. "Now I will have twice as much wool and milk to use, and I can sell the extra. I pay close attention to the health of my sheep so my flock will grow and grow. Someday, when I have many sheep, I will sell some at the market. Then I will buy a cow."
Small Responses Mean Big Changes
These inexpensive, sustainable projects will help expand opportunities for women in Afghanistan during the lead-up to the withdrawal of troops and beyond. Even though security will remain a concern in some provinces, wherever possible, aid groups and government ministries must continue to offer options for women to improve the well-being of their families.
Bettering individual women's lives through proven, efficient development work will lay the foundation for growth, prosperity and stability far into the future. It's an investment that's already paying off.
If you're going to bet on anyone during this transition, the smart money is on Bonu, Orazu, Nejiba and millions of their Afghan sisters.
Jennifer Hardy is CRS' regional information officer for Asia and the Pacific Rim. She is based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.