“At first the farmers didn’t know about us, or didn’t think we could do it.” Latifa, a widow living in western Afghanistan, is sitting with a group of women in their jam-making shop. “Some of them thought, ‘If we sell our fruits to these women, will we get our money?’”
Rural Afghan women are rarely allowed to leave their homes, much less start a business. But near a town called Herat, many women—especially widows and women with disabled husbands—are in desperate need of income.
Zarifa, a neighbor of Latifa’s, was trying to support her seven children. Her husband, who is handicapped and an opium addict, wouldn’t help. Zarifa and Latifa would occasionally be able to work in their homes, shelling pistachio nuts. “For one day’s work, only shelling the nuts without time to do any housework, we made 30 afs,”says Latifa. “It hurt our hands.”
Thirty afs is sixty-four cents, not nearly enough for Zarifa to feed her family of nine. “Sometimes we’d go hungry, me and the children. Our neighbors or relatives would send us something to eat,” she says.
Catholic Relief Services and its local partner, WDOA, started asking rural women what products, such as jam or carpets, are in demand in their villages. After getting buy-in from the community—including male elders—CRS formed self-help groups of about 20 women each.
CRS buys the group starter materials such as cookware or sewing machines, and trains the women in basic business practices. Many groups also learn to read, write, and do math.
Latifa’s group chose to make pickles and jam. Other women’s groups decided on small businesses like embroidery, towel-making, raising chickens, or creating wool products.
WDOA taught the women what to do. “First we teach them how to find a bazaar,” says a WDOA staffer. “Then we explain simple accounting—what’s the profit? Where should you buy the raw materials?”
Latifa and the women in her group started making peach, plum, and other jams. At first, “Some family members objected,” Latifa admits. “It’s not common here for women to work outside the home. But we told them we could earn money.”
Gradually the business grew. “We have a lot of customers,” says Sima, a woman in Latifa’s group. “Sometimes we even run out of the jam jars. Then people bring their own bowls and we fill them with jam.”
“We also make tomato paste,” she continues. “People bring us their tomatoes for the pulper that CRS gave us. Sometimes we process more than a ton of tomatoes a day.” During tomato season, the women work all day, and are even able to hire extra help—other needy women in the community.
Usually, though, each woman in the group works about three hours a day, and makes about 2,000 afs ($42) per month. It’s huge progress compared to the pittance they made shelling nuts. It also means they are better able to send their children to school.
The work improves the women’s lives in other ways. “They’re a little more free to leave their houses,” says a CRS program manager. “And men in their families are more willing to sign on to these activities once they see increased household income.”
Community ties are also strengthened. “In this area, there are different ethnic groups: Hazara, Pashtun, Tajik. In the past, there has sometimes been tensions between them,” says CRS staffer Yassir. “The women’s group mixes them. Women make jam or soap with each other and build good relations.”
Once the women are self-sufficient, they can help others. “We save some of the profits as a community savings fund, and give loans to needy women,” says Latifa. “For example, we gave one sick woman money for the doctor. Instead of taking money for that loan, we took eggplants.”
“Sometimes we give poor women here the jam or pickles for free, if they need food,” adds Sima.
Zarifa, the mother of seven, no longer needs to accept charity from relatives. “We don’t need that because I am earning money. I use the money to buy rice, oil, and other food,” she says. “This program has done a lot for me. I am proud I can support my family.”
The fruit farmers who were skeptical have changed their minds. “They now come to us and give us their numbers, saying we can buy their fruits,” says Latifa.
The confidence and skills the women have built will ripple out to help more and more people. “We can train other women,” says Latifa, “now that we’ve become experts—and more courageous.”
Laura Sheahen was, until recently, CRS’ regional information officer for Asia. She has moved to CRS partner Caritas Internationalis. We thank her for her years of service and shall miss her insightful and evocative writing.
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