Monday, May 23, 2011

The Veiled Afghani Woman and Economics

Afghanistan economy has improved significantly since the fall of the Taliban government in 2001 due largely to billions of dollars in international assistance and investments as well as remittances from Afghans in the diaspora.  However, the country remains one of the the poorest and least developed in the world and one that is highly dependent on foreign aid. Afghanistan GDP per capita, as of 2010, was $1000 and about 35% of its population live below the poverty line.

As in any country facing various hardships, the hardest hit population is the women and children. Afghani women have had to bear the severest and hardest burden of the 23 years of relentless war and gender apartheid designed to erase them from public view. Although the political and cultural position of women has improved since the fall of the Taliban, repression of women is still prevalent particularly in rural areas where women are restricted from public participation. One in every three Afghan women experiences physical, psychological or sexual violence and every 30 minutes a woman dies during childbirth. 70% - 80% of women are forced into marriages and 87% of women are illiterate because they are denied basic education. Only 30% of girls have access to education.

Afghani women are slowly building their ability to explore and achieve improved economic potential generating hope for a brighter future for them and their families. It is becoming clear that the only way to improve Afghanistan's living conditions is by empowering women.  Women are the backbones of all economies around the world. In Afghanistan women play a significant role in agriculture. Of the 80% Afghans employed in the agriculture field or similar occupations, 30% are women. However, the women earn three times less than the men even though they spend as much time working on the land as men.

"The economic empowerment of women is not a women's issue, it is a development issue. Under-investing in women's economic opportunity limits economic growth and slows down progress in poverty reduction".  This was an express observation by the World Bank's (PREM) Vice President, Danny Leipzig, in 2007 at the Berlin-based dialogue on Women's Economic Empowerment as Smart Economics: A Dialogue on Policy Options. 

Canada has stepped up and is presenting new opportunities to the vulnerable Afghani women in the form of micro-finance credit projects. The Micro-Finance Investment Support Facility (MISFA) is known as one of the world's largest micro finance programs. It is providing small loans and savings services to more that 445,000 Afghanis across 24 provinces, of which two-thirds are women. Most clients use the loans to invest in small retail businesses, in agriculture or livestock. To date more than one million loans have been given totaling US$384 million. In many cases, these opportunities have helped Afghan women acquire more self-esteem, more respect within their families and has served to mitigate domestic violence. More importantly it lifts women out of the poverty cycle.

So as the opportunities for empowerment and access to financial backing and infrastructure support continue to be realized, the debate on Afghan women and their plight, their representation, and their fight for inclusion goes on. Kabul may have been liberated from tyrannical Taliban rule, but most women in Afghanistan remain veiled. They continue to watch wearily as the war unfolds, still observers and not participants in their own destiny.

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