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Moving mountains

Five years ago Afghan women could not go out unaccompanied, let alone go to college. Today they are trying to build homes, businesses and a nation, writes Sutirtho Patranobis.

world Updated: Sep 16, 2007 03:49 IST
Sutirtho Patranobis

Five years after the Taliban regime was ousted, the women of Afghanistan are slowly reclaiming their lives and identities. With a little help from aid agencies and the government, the women, some of whom have given up the flowing blue burqas for the less traditional head-scarves and full-sleeve shirts, have begun to step out of homes and venture into territories till now dominated by men.

On the streets of Kabul, which is itself going through the painful process of rebuilding after 23 years of violence, more women are now seen confidently walking by, clutching their mobile phones. In the new, plush malls, women window-shop or sip coffee with male companions. They are seen gingerly walking into beauty salons, or walking behind husbands into newly-opened restaurants for dinner. In five star hotels, young Afghan girls politely direct you to the dining hall and point out the no-smoking sign.

In the last five years there have been quite a few firsts for the women here. Kabul’s first women-run radio station was launched in 2005. It was followed by the launch of a women’s fitness club, unthinkable just three years before. The launch of Afghanistan’s first job centre for women followed soon after.

Picking up the pieces
A single major obstacle for the job centre was finding qualified women. More than 90 per cent of Afghan women are illiterate following Taliban’s ban on women’s education during their six-year rule. Even today, centuries-old marriage traditions mean that 60 per cent of Afghan girls are forced into marriage before they are 16. But the good news is that 35 per cent of girls are in school that’s 5.5 million girls, the highest in the history of Afghanistan.

Problems abound, of course. There are more than 1.5 million widows in Afghanistan, a grim reminder of the ravages of war. Many of them roam the streets of Kabul and towns such as Charika as beggars, pleading from behind the veil in guttural voices. They can be determined in pursuing foreign tourists for a dole, their desperation concealed behind the cloak of religious compulsion.

It is the same determination desperation to some which is driving a section of Afghan women towards finding their place in a male dominated society. Young women who lost out on education during the six years of Taliban rule are now trying to fill that void through small businesses that can be run from homes, or through cooperatives.

It is an uphill task to break out of traditions that still expect the women to play the role of a homemaker. For example, in its latest report, the Centre for International Private Enterprises says men ran 94.4 per cent of the businesses in Afghanistan (in 2004).

Nooria Balwan possibly does not know it, but she as the deputy minister at the ministry of women’s affairs set up for the first time in Afghanistan after 2002 symbolises the new breed of women who can think independently. Her office is austere, except for a small potted plant. But her enthusiasm for the welfare of women seems genuine.

Balwan studied economics and planning abroad, and returned to Afghanistan through the International Migration Organisation after the Taliban government fell. The new projects her ministry is carrying out for the uplift for women are ready on her fingertips.

She is especially pleased with the joint project with the Gujarat-based Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA). This February, a SEWA team visited Kabul and had three meetings with officials of the women’s ministry.

“Ela Bhatt herself came for two days and interacted with several Afghan women and girls,” Balwan said over cups of green tea sweetened with toffee.

She says that not only would SEWA help train women in Afghanistan to make handicraft, they would also train to market and sell the products themselves. “Under the understanding, 20 Afghan girls would go to India to train at centres run by SEWA. They will learn designing, how to process fresh fruits and dry fruits. They will also be taught gardening skills and how to run a nursery,” Balwan added.

Spreading the good work
The Afghan Women’s Business Federation (AWBF) created by the merger of the Afghan Women’s Business Association and Afghan Women’s Business Consulate was established to streamline business opportunities for women interested in starting a business. Between September 2006 and July 2007, AWBF trained 799 persons in different areas of business development.

Balwan added that Japan is also helping the women of Afghanistan to find a foothold in the economy. “Three projects, named Jaika, are on in Kandahar, Mazhar-e-Sharief and Bamyan. The focus of the projects is on making the women self-sufficient in the gem industry. Similar projects are on with Italy in which women are being taught to repair mobiles, how to cook international cuisine and process gems. The Italians brought nine gem-polishing machines from India and donated it for training,” the deputy minister said.

Najib Manalai, deputy minister at the ministry of information, says India has a special role to play in rebuilding not only Afghanistan but also the lives of its women. “The situation is volatile in parts of the country, but it is improving. We recently held a ‘youth parliament’, in which students in the age group of 16-18 years from 100 high schools were asked to elect student leaders. Of the 103 elected, 53 were girls,” Manalai said.

The main problem, agreed both Banwal and Manalai, would be to take the winds of change to the rural areas of the country, where more than 80 per cent of the population lives. They agreed that the condition of women in villages and in the fiercely independent tribes would not have changed between now and, say, a decade ago. But they are hoping determination could change all that.