Notes from the Field

Securing a Place for Afghan Women in the Workplace

March 5, 2014

Asia Foundation 60th anniversary seriesIn one month, Afghanistan will hold presidential elections in a critical transition year faced with the drawdown of the remaining international security forces in the country, the growing insurgency, and the impact these events will have on the nation’s economy. Many are also concerned about what this will mean for women in the workplace and their tenuous gains in economic empowerment.

Afghan Women Home From School

Due to the marginalization of women and still widespread traditional views that women’s ability to participate in the workforce should be constrained, women’s economic potential remains limited. Photo/Jon Jamieson

On Feb. 17-18, 2014, The Asia Foundation partnered with the American University of Afghanistan’s International Center for Afghan Women’s Economic Development in Kabul for a two-day discussion on Afghan women’s economic participation challenges and the future: “Linking Economic Opportunities & Opening a National Dialogue on Gender Issues at Workplace.” Nearly 120 Afghan women business entrepreneurs from nine provinces participated in the closed-door forum, as well as government officials, including the Minister of Women’s Affairs, Dr. Husn Banu Ghazanfar. Panel discussion topics included: education for opportunity and leadership, economic success through entrepreneurship and trade, women and finance, Afghan legal and institutional environment for economic development, women’s economic development leading to political empowerment, and women in local governance. Below are issues that were raised and examined at the forum:

  • There has been a significant increase in school enrollment since 2001, with 10 million students now in school; nearly 40 percent of them girls, compared to almost none under Taliban rule. But that figure drops significantly by the time girls reach ninth grade. By age 18, fewer than 20 percent of girls remain in school, compared to more than 40 percent of boys. Some of the factors preventing girls from continuing in school include early and forced marriages; lack of family support, particularly in rural areas; insecurity; and limited female teachers, who are vital for girls to be able to enroll and remain in school. Deputy Minister of Education Asif Nang recently said that in more than 166 districts of Afghanistan out of 416, there is not a single female teacher.
  • Without education, women will not have the skills that are essential to becoming successful entrepreneurs, which means they are not going to have the potential to contribute to their country’s uncertain economic future, panelists said. In order to overcome these challenges, panelists recommended that the Education Ministry incorporate gender study courses in the universities’ curriculum, establish separate higher education institutions for women, and encourage deeper commitment from the Afghan government to develop a national-level response plan that requires 50 percent women’s representation in the private and public sector as well as in the civil society.
  • Small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are key economic drivers of Afghanistan’s development. They constitute approximately 75 percent of the labor force and generate over 50 percent of GDP. However, Afghan business owners – particularly women – struggle to obtain the capital, management advice, equipment, and technologies they need to grow their businesses. Women play a major role in many of Afghanistan’s sectors, including agriculture, jewelry, carpets, and embroidery, but face greater obstacles and have fewer resources to build or start their own businesses.
  • A panelist from the business community in Kabul suggested that women business leaders encourage domestic investors to start more small businesses, and to put more pressure on the government to adjust its policies to address the risks and obstacles Afghan women entrepreneurs face. According to one panelist, women entrepreneurs face up to 80 percent more instances related to bribes, corruption, violence, verbal abuse, and higher taxes than their male counterparts and wait 30 percent longer than men to have their grievances addressed in the justice system.
  • A 2013 report from Building Markets that measures women’s economic participation in Afghanistan, found that a majority (81%) of women respondents said they were unable to access any credit or financing for their business. The participants echoed global findings that women are often the ones responsible for managing household finances, and those women who have invested or taken a loan have been successful in paying their debt on time. Some of the barriers preventing women’s access to financial services include higher interest rates for women in Afghanistan and lack of collateral, as women are not considered legal property owners, making them less viable to banks or micro-finance institutions.
  • Afghanistan struggles from a weak economy, slow development, and dependency on foreign aid. Due to the marginalization of women and still widespread traditional views that women’s ability to participate in the workforce should be constrained, women’s economic potential remains limited. One participant pointed out that even though many women are working, their services are not considered as integral as men’s and thus face challenges including discrimination in the labor force and significantly lower compensation. Speakers agreed on the need for more gender-inclusive economic policies and laws.
  • Women comprise approximately 55 percent of Afghanistan’s population, and in the past decade their participation in politics has increased. However, in order for these gains to be maintained and increase, Afghan women need greater access and stronger women’s associations and networks that would allow them to share ideas and exchange thoughts on how their rights should be protected in the public sphere.
  • Women need greater financial autonomy in order to secure economic empowerment. This is not the case today, as many Afghan women do not have direct access to their revenues or earnings that are typically handed over to the woman’s husband.

Minister Husn Banu Ghazanfar closed the forum with this: “Economy, law, and culture are all interconnected in a society and should be treated as such. Afghan women have shown that they have the ability to contribute to society despite the fact that they lack access to marketing and to markets. Policies should be created in various ministries that would allow women to participate actively and support women’s initiatives. Women require courage and motivation. Women need to be ambitious and write down their short-medium-long term plans of actions, and never give up and get discouraged.”

Petra Dunne is a project manager at The Asia Foundation’s office in Kabul, Afghanistan. She can be reached at pdunne@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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