Baking bread, building roads: Stories of women's entrepreneurship in Afghanistan

Afghanistan is one of the most challenging places in the world to be born a woman, according to the UN’s latest Gender Inequality Index.

From day one, Afghan women face lower access to education, poor health care services, and limited economic and political opportunities.

Women living in rural areas are especially disadvantaged, as they are more isolated and less likely to have access to vital services. They are still poorly represented at the village level, marginalizing women’s concerns and excluding them from participation in community work.

Compounding these issues is the lack of adequate physical infrastructure, which has steadily deteriorated as a result of over three decades of war and civil strife –severely hampering development efforts.

To counter this, UNOPS is building and repairing over 1,000 km of roads and 20 bridges in isolated regions of Northern Afghanistan, under a $ 60 million project funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) and implemented in cooperation with the National Rural Access Program (NRAP), the Ministry of Public Works, the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development and provincial authorities.

The three-phased Rural Access Improvement Project seeks to empower women by including them in construction work aimed at improving access to food, education and health services in remote regions of the country. By building roads and developing local capacity, UNOPS is supporting Sida to create employment opportunities for both men and women, and, as a result, reduce poverty.

The eight-year project is also aligned with national gender policies and development goals, such as the 2008 Afghanistan National Development Strategy.

Breaking down barriers

Hiring women in an area where women do not traditionally work outside the home is no easy task. The biggest challenge in this project has been getting local communities on board and breaking through the cultural barriers that traditionally prevent Afghan women from leaving their homes.

To achieve this, dedicated female outreach officers were hired to persuade local community leaders to let women work. This approach worked well and women were trained to hammer down stones into smaller chips for road maintenance and weave wire baskets for wall building. Both were such a success that the women expanded their activities and started supplying stone chips to similar projects in other communities. They also started selling the wire baskets to NGOs to use for flood protection.

The women learned a useful new skill and started earning a valuable income for their families. Working as a group also led to the creation of an informal social forum where women could exchange ideas on ways to improve their lives.

From housewives to bread-winners

Once road construction started, other women-led initiatives began to flourish. When construction workers complained of the lack of places to buy food onsite, for example, the project supported a group of local women in setting up a bakery, to sell bread to local workers and bus passengers. This worked so well that five women’s groups were trained to start similar ventures.

Another group was engaged to produce protective clothing for the project’s snow clearing crew. The quality of the products led other UN agencies to enquire about buying winter wear from the group. The wages the women brought home from these businesses gave many a precious new financial freedom.

Developing local capacity

The project has also worked to extend the scope of female work at construction sites and find more ways to include women, especially at the decision-making level. Literate women from the area were hired as Gender Inclusion Assistants to help mobilize women and increase their participation at all stages of project implementation, effectively ensuring their voices are heard.

Nearly 800 women were trained in weaving baskets and protective clothing such as jumpers, socks and gloves, for distribution to snow clearing crews. They were able to start making winter clothes and opened a market place for women entrepreneurs, on top of weaving baskets, producing stone chips and participating in bakery projects. Sale proceeds were distributed among the women, who were able to start their own micro-businesses.

Paving the road ahead

Successfully promoting gender equality and empowering women requires creativity, persistence and strong engagement with local communities.

If women’s voices are not heard in rural development projects, a significant segment of the population will continue to be excluded. This has a direct impact on the growth and development of economies as a whole.

Empowering Afghan women through income generating activities helps them become independent, respected individuals in their communities. Above all, it gives Afghan women a chance to contribute to the rebuilding of their nation, as daughters, as mothers and as breadwinners.

UNOPS in focus