MAZAR-E-SHARIF CITY, Afghanistan — In a region infamous for its enduring struggle with the Taliban and lack of gender equality, some Afghan women are finding a new foothold in the economy.
Raqiba Barmaki, a 55-year old mother of seven is a well-known businesswoman in Balkh Province. According to a World Bank report, Barmaki has been selling Balkhi women’s handicrafts for the last four years in her shop in Rabia Balkhi marketplace in Mazar-e-Sharif city—a market dedicated to female shopkeepers.
Once the only female shopkeeper in the marketplace, Barmaki now heads a business connecting 40 female craftsmen, trained by her, who earn the equivalent of $18 to $70 per month.
Prior to their arrangement with Barmaki, these Afghan women did not have the specialized skills to earn a supplementary income. Now with her training, the craftswomen operate from their homes and make a range of crafts, from woven art to vases, using raw materials supplied by Barmaki.
“The marketplace has become a haven for female Afghan entrepreneurship,” said Habiba Rasuli, one shopkeeper and former trainee of Barmaki. “Many women have been able to develop their own handicraft business in Rabia Balkhi marketplace.”
The Afghan Rural Enterprise Development Program (AREDP) supports female entrepreneurs in rural Afghanistan, through funding from the World Bank and the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF).
“The World Bank has identified the low level of women participating in Afghanistan’s workforce and generally low levels of female human capital as one of the greatest risks to the Afghan economy going forward, and one of the strongest underlying constraints to poverty reduction,” the ARTF writes in a statement on gender.
The ARTF has a specific mandate to improve the lives of women, supporting a gender reform agenda. To date, it has worked on identifying high potential market entry points for women and has released policy reviews outlining specific challenges posed to women, recommending their increased representation in civil service positions.
“In order to support women’s human capital and ability to participate more actively in various sectors of the economy, a range of interventions are needed, including health and education services, as well and agricultural extension and value chain support, financial services, and support to women in the civil service, to name a few,” the statement says.
The Afghan Rural Enterprise Development Program has also been involved in other efforts to help the sustainable development of Afghan business, and specifically to increase the number of women participating in the rural Afghan economy. Most recently, it has supported saffron production among Afghan farmers as a sustainable replacement for Afghanistan’s illicit poppy industry.
To support the development of saffron growing in Afghanistan, the AREDP regularly convenes exhibitions and gatherings about cultivation, production, and selling of saffron so that farmers are better educated about the process. It also enables farmers to travel so that they could learn from the experiences of other countries.
“We have provided five national exhibitions for ten saffron enterprises,” says Rahmatullah Quraishi, Executive Director, AREDP. The AREDP have also supported visits to India for about six saffron enterprises of Herat province to enhance their knowledge, technical skills, and market linkages about saffron.
“Saffron can be cultivated in many areas. Economically, if each family had half a jerib or one jerib (half an acre) of land for saffron, we would be saved from poverty,” said Bashir Ahmad Rashidi, head of Afghanistan’s National Union of Saffron Growers.
In addition to being a licit alternative to poppy production, the saffron industry drives an increased representation of women in the workforce: 80 percent of the jobs involved in saffron harvesting, refining and packaging are performed by women.
A World Bank article highlights a young woman in her twenties, named Beheshta Karimi, who works for Aryana Saffron Company. She is responsible for refining and packaging the saffron and she oversees around ten other women, working alongside them in a small room.
“We start at 8 in the morning and by 5 in the afternoon, we must prepare one kilogram of saffron ready for packaging,” says Beheshta. She receives a salary of Afghani 7,000 (about $120) and her subordinates receive Afghani 5,000 (about $87) per month. She does not consider her work difficult and says that her colleagues are extremely happy to have this job opportunity, the World Bank reports.