Kabul women jumpstart the economy

Kabul, January 26, 2005 – More than three years after the collapse of the Taliban regime women are spearheading Afghanistan's economic revival.

The civil war and the US intervention have created a gender gap in the country. Women now constitute 55 per cent of the population. In Kabul alone there are 70,000 widows.

NGOs and the academic world have responded by setting up programmes designed to help women get back on their own two feet.

Almost 10,000 of them can now benefit from the micro-credit programmes offered by BRAC-Afghanistan, a non governmental organisation set up at the initiative of a similarly named NGO from Bangladesh: the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee.

The NGO's Afghan branch was founded in May 2002 and is working to rebuild Afghanistan's social and economic infrastructure through a series of educational, health care and micro-credit projects.

So far, no one has defaulted on their loans and BRAC initiatives have been approved by the Afghan Ministry of Rural development.

The Artemis Project is a similar initiative. It is a US-based special entrepreneurship programme that started in Phoenix (Arizona) and trains students in marketing, management and client relations.

The first 15 Afghan women in the programme are now completing the two-week training. They are mostly from Kabul's elite and were able to get some education during the Taliban regime.

The initiative was born from the belief that once trained, women would spread their knowledge.

Under Taliban rule, Afghan women were barred from working and girls weren't allowed to go to school.

Since the regime's downfall, millions of girls have been able to enrol in school and women have been allowed to restart their careers. It is likely however that a generation will have to pass to make up for lost time.

Until the Talibans were toppled by US in 2001, Kamela Sediqi had to hide her tile business. For years she worked under a false name, covered in a burqa.

What she did was dangerous and illegal, but she was helped by her brother and received support from other family members.

Then,"I don't have any money or anything, just the idea," she said with a smile.

With money borrowed from a sister she bought equipment. Burqa-covered women would come to her home, take equipment and supplies hidden in their clothing and do the work at home. They would return the finished product the same way, and Sediqi's brother would sell it.

After the Talibans' fall, some business partners didn't recognize her without the burqa.

Currently, she employs 270 women who make gabions—large metal cages filled with rocks for flood control projects. Her biggest challenge is being able to expand rapidly enough to meet demand and beat foreign competitors.

Business is good because there is high demand for construction materials and most male workers are trained in other trades. But it is imperative that Afghan women mobilise to rebuild the country that has no other resources but its people.