Afghanistan's women breadwinners beat hunger
By Laura Sheahen, Catholic Relief Services
Khaire Nesa leads a women's self-help group in the remote Afghan town of Chaghcharan. Profits from the group's business have saved her children from hunger.
"My son was five. 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 (CRS - an American member of the Caritas confederation). 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.
In a remote town called Chaghcharan, Khaire's group began by raising chickens and selling their eggs, but soon took on a larger venture. "There's no bakery in Chaghcharan," says Khaire, so the twenty women decided to start making cakes and cookies to sell.
CRS provided two ovens housed and gave the women's group flour, cooking oil, baking powder and raisins. "CRS gave us ingredients for three months. We used it all in ten days," Khaire smiles. The bakery quickly got a standing order to provide more than 800 pounds of baked goods every week to the local police. They 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, yoghurt, and meat."
In October, Caritas made an appeal to network members for US$2,977,520 (€ 2 million) to help provide food and to invest in work programmes in Afghanistan. The appeal will also help Afghans combat the ongoing effects of droughts and floods as well as preparing them for the imminent harsh winter.
In Chaghcharan, another women's group sews curtains. The twenty women can now buy things they couldn’t afford before such as rice, soap and baby clothes.
"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!'" says one of the group’s members.
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.
In the late 1990s, the Taliban shut down many schools in Afghanistan and forbade girls to be educated. The UN 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.
Over 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 seven 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."
This story appears on Catholic Relief Services' website.
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