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    South Asia
     Apr 1, 2010
Afghan women flex economic muscle
By Ramesh Nabizada

PARWAN, Afghanistan - Makai is so engrossed at the clattering sewing machine that she barely notices as visitors enter her new workplace. The 35-year-old is one of 2,500 female members of the Agriculture and Handicrafts Association of Parwan Province, a unique organization that she and others say has helped pull their families out of poverty.

"I have been learning tailoring here for the past six months. I've mastered everything and I'm sure I can solve my family's economic problems now," Makai said, adding that the skills she now possesses fill a niche in her community to everyone's benefit.
"People pay US$6 to get their clothes made in the city, while I


charge only $3, so clearly they now come to me."

What makes the association special is that from its inception in 2007 it was a small entity that immediately thought big and bold, hardly what is expected from women in Afghanistan's male-dominated culture.

Using start-up capital of just $1,800 received from the Parwan Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the association under director Saleha Zarin rented a large house as training premises. She brought in 500 women with a broad range of existing skills, and set about improving these and teaching them new, marketable ones.

"The association started its activities in different fields, such as production of jams, pickles, tomato paste, cake and cookies, weaving carpets, sewing traditional clothes for men and women, and farming saffron and livestock," Zarin said.

The range has since been broadened to include integrated farming techniques, with new retail projects also in the pipeline.

Initial registration and membership costs the equivalent of $1.20, for which the women become part of a ready-made cooperative. It also takes on trainees with no existing skills and makes them self-sufficient in a matter of months.

Arezo, 22, learned how to weave heavy garments such as men's winter sweaters, which cost on average $4 to make and retail for $6. She makes two a day that she sells in the provincial capital, Charikar, plus additional sales at special exhibitions run by the association, thus earning enough to support herself and her family.

She has also trained a group of 20 women at the association over the past year and receives a ration of food products for her input.

"Every two months we are provided with two 50-kilogram sacks of wheat, a can of cooking oil and pulses, while our students receive half that amount," she said.

The association is still partly dependent on support from the chamber of commerce, the World Food Programme and the United States Provincial Reconstruction Team in Parwan. But that does not hold anyone back from planning the next stage of its expansion.

The director of the provincial department for women's affairs, Shah Jahan Yazdan Parast, says there is approval for construction of modern retail booths in the women's park in Parwan where the small producers will be able to display and sell their goods.

The $200,000 needed to build this mini-retail park will come from the ministry of women's affairs, Parast said.

The association's work has been well received overseas too. Zarin recently travelled by invitation to France to attend seminars on how to produce butter, cheese, churned sour milk and other dairy products using basic equipment, and how to sell them to local and foreign markets.

The search is under way for funding for that project and for two others planned for the coming years: a chain of poultry farms where women participants will get 200 eggs to sell at market per day, and agricultural cooperatives to improve livestock breeding.

The association has also implemented food-for-work projects in cooperation with local and international organizations.

The opportunities are a big change from before 2007, when many Parwan women who were often sole breadwinners would have to scratch out a living in any unskilled job available.

"The government and other institutions do nothing for women with problems like me," said Golshah, 33, whose husband was killed in the civil war and who for years eked out a living as a domestic servant. "We work in people's homes washing clothes and darning blankets. I turned to the department of women affairs, the Red Cross and other organizations many times, but no one gave me the chance to work."

A fresh start also presented itself to 37-year-old Tamana, who for the past four months has been learning how to grow saffron.

"Previously we farmed pulses and vegetables but I cultivated saffron this year, and it is several times more profitable. I no longer worry whether my produce will find a buyer," she told IWPR.

Evaluating the new course and the horizons it opened for her family, she simply said, "It's changed our life."

Ramesh Nabizada is an IWPR trainee reporter.

(This article originally appeared in Institute for War and Peace Reporting. Used with permission.)

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