"My son was 5. He was so thin," says Khaire Nesa, a 38-year-old Afghan woman. "He died."
Khaire speaks softly as she pulls up the sleeve of her toddler, a girl. There's a mixture of pride, amazement and hopefulness on her face as she points to the baby's arm. The arm is not plump, but it's not bony either. "Now I can buy more food. My children have gained weight."
Khaire can buy more food for her six children because she joined a women's self-help group supported by Catholic Relief Services. In villages across Afghanistan, the groups bring together women who want to earn money. CRS helps them start small home-based businesses, giving them training and supplies like sewing machines.
Filling a Community Need
In a remote town called Chaghcharan, Khaire's group began by raising chickens and selling eggs, but soon took on a larger venture. "There's no bakery in Chaghcharan," says Khaire, so the 20 women decided to start making cakes and cookies to sell.
CRS provided two ovens housed in a domed, mud-wall hut. CRS also gave the women's group flour, cooking oil, baking powder and raisins. "CRS gave us ingredients for three months. We used it all in 10 days," Khaire smiles.
After giving out free samples, the bakery quickly got a standing order to provide more than 800 pounds of baked goods every week to the local police. The women also got contracts with two shopkeepers in the local marketplace. In less than two months the bakery was self-sufficient.
The $8-a-week profit each woman takes home is a substantial sum in the impoverished town. For Khaire, whose husband works in one of the town's two gas stations, the money makes a huge difference. "Three years ago we didn't have enough money for the children and house. We used to eat mainly tea and bread," says Khaire. "Now that I'm part of the self-help group, we have more money. We can eat rice, yogurt and meat."
Khaire says that the bakery earnings have translated into more respect for the women at home. "One woman's husband is disabled, he can't work. He would beat his wife, and one time he threw a scalding cup of tea at her," says Khaire. "Now they are happy because the woman is earning money. He stopped the violence."
'Women Run This Shop!'
In Chaghcharan, another women's group sews curtains. They started off with sewing machines, fabric and thread provided by CRS; when they began making a profit, they started buying their own fabric. Sitting on the floor in a tidy mud-brick room where they do their work, the 20 women talk about what they can buy now that they couldn't before. Their list included rice, tea, baby clothes, soap and a teapot.
When asked if any of their children went hungry before the program, out of the 20, about seven hands go up. Asked if they sometimes go hungry now, all the hands go down.
"My children were sick and we had to go to Kabul for them. We borrowed money from relatives. Now we can pay it back," says a woman in the group.
The group has plans to expand, explains another woman. "When we earn enough by making the curtains at home, we want to open a shop in the market. The people will say 'Wow! Women run this shop!' "
The women also learn about good hygiene. "We used to bathe our children every 10 days or so," says one woman in the curtain-sewing group. "Now we bathe them each morning, and after we go to the bathroom, we wash our hands."
Earning and Learning
And there are more lessons: All CRS' self-help groups have a literacy component. In the mountainous Afghan region of Bamiyan, women in a tailoring group learn to read, write and do basic math. The group's teacher, Zahara, receives a stipend from CRS for the classes. "If someone can't read, it's like they're blind," says Zahara. "If they need to go to the hospital, they can't read the signs."
In the late 1990s, the Taliban shut down many schools in Afghanistan and forbade girls to be educated. The United Nations estimates that the literacy rate for women in Afghanistan is less than 13 percent. "There are a lot of girls who never learned to read because the Taliban were here. This is a second chance for them," says Zahara.
Dubbing their group "Success," the women have made quick progress in both literacy and building their business. "Now, when the doctor gives them medicine, they can read what's on the bottle," says Zahara. And using sewing machines and materials provided by CRS, the women have sewn vests typical to the Bamiyan area. "We've already made six or seven vests," says one woman. "People in a village up the road have heard about the vests we make and are asking for them."
More than 100 self-help groups in Afghanistan are helping women and their families escape poverty and hunger. In the bakery group, a woman named Hava Gul speaks up. "My son is 7 years old, and he can't walk. My daughter has problems too. When they were younger, we didn't have enough food. I couldn't breastfeed properly—I didn't have enough milk."
"Now we have food," continues Hava. "I hope my children will study in school, and I hope they will not be thin."
Laura Sheahen was CRS' regional information officer for Asia. She was based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.