Empowering Afghan women

Noble intentions sometimes hinder rather than helpachievenoble goals.

Two decades of war and a Taliban policy that reflected total ignorance of women and their importance to society have stimulated the West to make up for the deprivations suffered by Afghan women.

Over the last three years, the international community funded hundreds of women’s nongovernmental organizations and efforts associated with the development of women’s groups. Although many of these projects have assisted thousands of women in achieving levels of self-reliance and independence, the bigger picture is that Afghanistan’s women remain isolated and to a large extent still irrelevant in one essential place, the country’s private sector.

Afghanistan’s women generally exist in parallel to their male counterparts. Segregated at an early age, Afghanistan’s men and women have little or no opportunity to develop interpersonal skills crucial to social cohesion.

Creating new divisions and lines of privilege within the pool of limited private-sector resources slows people down; it builds new obstacles where natural activity and gender integration might otherwise flow.

An organization affiliated with the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) recently proposed building a women’s industrial park in Kabul referred to as the “The Kabul Textile Works.” Given that industrial parks are situated on the outskirts of Kabul, it would force women to venture out of town to work and shop.

The long trip out of town cancels out the potential benefits of being an all-women’s environment. Many of the women could be exposed to checkpoints and possible intimidation or harassment on their lengthy trips just attempting to get to the “women’s industrial park.” Employers in Afghanistan already recognize that their female employees’ biggest challenge is transport and travelling long distances with the permission of their families.

This would amount to gender division, funded by the international community, inadvertently encouraging the replication of social mores akin to a country like Saudi Arabia.

Another proposal — a “women’s bank” — proffers similar contradictions. A large majority of Afghan women are illiterate and such an organization could just as easily as a regular bank exploit the women it intends to assist.

Why not work with existing banks to provide specialized services for women customers, thereby trying to integrate them? America’s response to segregation of blacks, and women for that matter, was to integrate and to offer affirmative action, not create new segregated institutions. What’s good for one of the world’s most integrated societies should serve as a telling example for one of the world’s most divided.

Men and women need to work together first so they can find ways to work together successfully. There are tasks in many organizations that only men can perform, and best perform in conjunction with women and vice versa. But to eliminate qualified males whose higher level of training could benefit large numbers of women is, in fact, counterproductive to the intent of “women-only initiatives.”

An example is the Afghan Women’s Vocational Skills Learning Center, a local nonprofit which has done far more to benefit Afghan women than many of the “women-only” NGOs in Kabul. The head of the organization is a man and a master tailor and educator of highly reputable character.

To date, he has certified over 6,000 women with vocational skills related to tailoring and handicrafts. Plus, because he is also an effective businessman, he often is able to employ his best graduates and provide them with concrete income generation. His organization has much to do with his character and years of experience.

But he has been turned down for training visits abroad and other programs that would benefit the large numbers of women that he assists. Rather than accept the reality that in modern-day Afghanistan, organizations are led by men, but still can benefit women, he was told by UNIFEM that they were only interested in “women-led” organizations.

It is time for the international community to step back a little and examine this phenomenon and ensure that the assistance provided integrates women into society and does not isolate them.

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