Empowering women: the case of savings groups in Afghanistan

Empowering women: the case of savings groups in Afghanistan

Women’s empowerment can be defined in various ways and aspects, but has a more significant role to enable women to build their self-confidence, and appear as decision makers in families and in society.  

Empowering women means empowering the world: this concept is well-known and understood. But the fact is that women do not need to be empowered, as they have power. What they need is for their work to be recognized and that there are more opportunities to claim and use their power, as explained by Pat Mitchell 1. This has been the reality of Afghan women for a long time. They have hardly been given a chance or an opportunity to show their skills, their ability and their power. Their skills and abilities have been limited to household tasks, trapping them to  their responsibilities inside the house, toward their families. They have never thought about the financial value of their work and skills. I have met women during a recent fieldwork in Bamiyan and Badakhshan, for a project on women’s economic empowerment, who used the opportunities and chances they got and turned their skills into their power. Each woman had many skills, such as baking, farming, sewing (e.g. embroidery), knitting and weaving (carpet etc.), but these were skills that these women had never used for their own benefits. They started small income-generating activities using those common skills. Now they take care of their families and hope to create a brighter future for their children. Jamila and Khrushid are  two of those women.

Jamila is living in a remote village of Badakhshan province. She wants to support her family financially, alongside her husband. She has nine daughters, and she believes her daughters deserve the chance to achieve what they want, through education and work. All of her daughters are going to school and university. She said it is difficult to get a job in that village, especially as an illiterate woman, but she was an excellent baker and cook, especially of bread and cookies. She has baked bread and salted cookies for years to feed her family. She had the determination to start a business from scratch despite it being virtually unseen in her village. As she got an opportunity to get a loan with no interest 2, she turned her skill into an income-generating activity: she continues baking bread and cookies at home, and sells them to earn an income in the local market. She said: “With this money (loan), I bought flour, wood and made my bakery larger. I sell cakes and bread in the market.” 

She was delighted with her success and progress: “Now, I can satisfy all the desires. I do not need anyone anymore. I do not ask my husband to give me money. I get booklets and pens for my children. It is not easy to raise nine girls. The children are doing their studies, and I am leading my own life. I was dependent. Although my life was spent in illiteracy, I am happy for my children. I buy them books, pens, bags and tell them to study and become literate.” Jamila is a good  example of what happens when women are offered opportunities – here through a loan – to show and develop their skills into financial independence. Since she has become financially independent , she has significantly increased her influence in the decision making process of her family, and now she is the main supporter for her nine daughters’ empowerment. Her husband also mentioned in his interview how his wife is able to help him in financial matters: “I have nine daughters and I and my wife. In total, we are 11 family members. If she cannot work, the income that I earn cannot feed our family.” He called his wife his supporter in every matter of life. 

Khurshid’s story is another powerful example. She had never thought that one day a situation would come in her life to become the only breadwinner of her family and take care of her children alone. Khurshid, is a 38-year-old widow who has four children. She lives in the most remote and coldest part of Bamiyan, in a community where women have not been engaged in financial and economic matters. A woman who had never thought about economics, and had never taken a small financial decision in her family, suddenly lost her husband. She used her agricultural skills to take care of her family’s farm to earn something for her family’s livelihood. However, it was not enough to provide for all the basic needs of her children. She got up to find an income-generating activity. She got training on how to keep honeybees through a vocational training programme funded by the World Bank and implemented by the Agha Khan Development Network. She got a loan with no interest and started an income-generating activity through honeybees. She said: “Suddenly, all the burden of life and family comes on me. It was challenging for me to deal with difficulties. Some people were saying not to send my children to school anymore, instead use them to work on the farms or somewhere else as a shepherd, but I didn’t accept them. My children are going to school; I hope for a better future for them. My daughter should become literate. She shouldn’t be illiterate like me.”  Her daughter, a secondary school student, helps her register and record her financial issues. Not only Khurshid has become empowered, she empowered her family by keeping her children in school, and she will support her children to become empowered in the future. 

As Melinda Gates says: “If you want to lift up humanity, empower women. It is the most comprehensive, pervasive, high-leverage investment you can make in human beings.3 Yes, empowering women means empowering humanity and the world, and it is an essential issue for women in Afghanistan. There is no guarantee and assurance in one’s life in a country like Afghanistan where war is going on.  Jamila and Khurshid are examples of many other women who got a chance and used their skills and powers, despite the many challenges set by society and proved that women’s empowerment through economic means equals empowerment of a family, a society and the world. 

  1.  Pat Mitchell, “Dangerous times call for dangerous women,” TED, December 2019, 17:5, https://www.ted.com/talks/pat_mitchell_dangerous_times_call_for_dangerous_women
  2.  They have received loan through an AKF-WB project (SWEEP) 
  3.  Milanda gates, “The moment of lift: How Empowering Women changes the World,”  page 27