Afghanistan may be one of the poorest places in the world, and one of the worst places to be a woman, but our experience has shown us that to improve the lives of women is to improve the lives of everyone in Afghanistan. To celebrate Women’s History Month, we're looking back at our projects that have empowered women, and consequently helped communities alleviate poverty.

1990s: Women’s Resource Centres in Badakhshan

Although the early days of Afghanaid were predominantly focused on providing aid to Afghan refugees in Pakistan, the 1990s saw an expansion of our projects. Recognising that women’s involvement in bringing the country out of poverty was crucial, we moved to set up women’s resource centres in Badakhshan, Samangan, Ghor and elsewhere.

The aim was to provide a space for women to meet, to improve their literacy and awareness of health issues, and to learn vocational skills. Training in tailoring and embroidery was later expanded to include training in small business management and computer literacy. 

A New Millenium Brings an Expansion of Women’s Rights Agenda

Seeing the successes of these effective but relatively smaller scale women’s initiatives, inspired a refocusing of our agenda in the early 2000s.

In 2004, we began a nine-year partnership with the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation to reduce poverty and vulnerability in four districts of Samangan province. The programme built on our previous rural development work in the province - particularly in agriculture and animal husbandry - but had new aims to make community organisations more gender sensitive, to diversify employment opportunities and to increase the influence of communities with local government. 

The project benefited from the donor’s long term commitment. It fostered hundreds of new small businesses, improved market linkages and produced a much greater level of participation and leadership by women in local institutions and public life. 

Afghanaid introduced self-help groups in 2005 after an exposure visit to India.  They were piloted first in Badakhshan and introduced the next year in Samangan and Ghor. The groups typically had about twenty members, who saved a fixed sum with the group each month and used their accumulated capital to support small business development by their members. Afghanaid facilitated the formation of the groups and trained the members in book-keeping and minute-taking.

By 2007, there were over 150 groups in the three provinces and a wide range of small businesses had been started, from shop-keeping to small industries and trades.

Women's Leadership in the National Solidarity Programme

Underpinning many of these projects was Afghanaid’s participation in the Afghan government’s National Solidarity Programme (NSP) from 2003 onwards. The NSP sought to bolster development by putting communities at the heart of development projects, through the creation of democratically elected local councils. 

What is most relevant here, is that elections were made through secret ballots where all members of society could participate in elections. The results were startling, and by 2011, Afghanaid had trained over 2,500 women as leaders in local government structures, supported 4,000 women to become members of savings groups, and trained 5,000 in small business development. 

One of these women, Soghra, who is the head of a local council in Daykundi says the change to her life has been huge. As a woman I am really proud of myself. Before my husband didn’t let me go out, but now he believes in my abilities and lets me work. Before I could not even solve my own problems, but now when people face any challenge they come to me and take my advice."

Women’s Rights Take Centre Stage

As we moved towards the 2010s, our women’s rights and empowerment projects grew both in stature and in success. In 2013, we launched a ground-breaking Women's Economic Empowerment programme to advance the economic and social status of 14,000 vulnerable women in Badakhshan. Run by an almost all-female team, the project provided women with livelihood, entrepreneurship and literacy training, as well as the materials required to establish their small businesses. The project had wide-reaching effects, including reducing the social isolation of these women, increasing their self-confidence, reducing domestic violence and increasing their daughters' school attendance.

This paved the way for our current project, funded by UK Aid Direct, which commenced in 2018 and is set to run until 2022. Focusing on allowing women to exercise greater power over their lives by providing them the skills they need to generate an income, promoting women’s engagement in community governance, and raising awareness of family health and hygiene, this is one of the most ambitious projects we have ever run. Over the course of the project, some 10,500 women and their families will benefit.

Such projects have also found effectiveness in their increased focus on education for male members of society, who can access educational courses on the benefits of a society with a greater degree of women's participation. Work like this demonstrates best everything that Afghanaid has learnt about tackling women's rights in Afghanistan: to make change most effectively, you need to address the multifaceted nature of existing social structures, and to give ownership to everybody in the process.

How can you help?

You can help us in our mission to take further steps towards making Afghanistan a better place to live for women. Get involved this Women's History Month and join our mission for gender equality in Afghanistan.