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Afghanistan’s women -- the hidden strength of a war-torn land

The overthrow of the Taliban opens an opportunity to help Afghanistan’s most invisible group -- rural women

For decades Afghan women have been invisible
Photo: WFP/Nina Berman.

For decades, Afghan women have been invisible, stripped of their rights and opportunities by war, legislation and custom. They have been denied access to fundamental human rights, the most rudimentary public services and even to development assistance.

The removal of the burqa, the re-opening of schools and the return of educated women to positions of authority -- as teachers, doctors and government officials -- is only half the battle for normalcy.

In country where 85 percent of the population depends on agriculture, rural women are the lynchpin in the struggle for self-reliance and democracy. They never had the rights and opportunities their urban sisters lost under the Taliban.

The defeat of the Taliban regime and the unprecedented global interest in the country offer an opportunity to recognize women as key to Afghanistan’s reconstruction.

Women: key to reconstruction

Drought, war, landmines and economic migration have given Afghanistan one of the highest concentrations of women-headed households in the world. Sixty percent of the population is female. In some families all the men are gone, leaving women isolated in a traditional patriarchal society. Others have lost male family members to drug addiction, a growing problem that further reduces families’ ability to cope.

Yet through decades of crisis, rural Afghan women have played a major role in keeping the country alive. They are responsible for livestock production -- the safe birth and care of young animals, dairy production, grain and fruit processing, and poultry management. Although most are illiterate, they have specialized veterinary skills that help keep their animals healthy and protect household income and nutrition.

Lessons of experience

"It is clear that Afghanistan’s economy is a rural, family economy with women at its heart. We must ensure that they are at the forefront of Afghanistan’s recovery."


FAO has been the foremost agricultural agency in Afghanistan since 1994, working mainly on seed multiplication and animal health. Key lessons were learned from an FAO/UNDP programme initiated in 1995 to provide communities with the knowledge and skills to look after their livestock. Through the use of community veterinary technicians, the programme inadvertently became a catalyst for efforts to help women, particularly in animal health and production.

“We didn’t set out to target women,” says Terence Barker, who headed the programme until 2000. “But it soon became clear that family livestock production systems were women’s production systems.”

But male veterinarians were forbidden to deal with women farmers, so in 1996 the programme recruited two women who were qualified veterinarians but had been prevented from working by cultural traditions. They became the first of 15 female 'master trainers', able to train other women as veterinary assistants.

 Men and women learning together

The training course was held in Pakistan so that women and men could train together. “At first the male trainees were very skeptical,” recalls Mr Barker. “But the participatory approach meant that they had to analyse what it meant to look after pregnant and birthing animals -- to attach big words to everyday activities -- and they discovered that women, illiterate women, were as competent as men.”

The programme took advantage of Taliban concessions to female medical workers, which allowed the women to travel in rural areas. “Our female vets always carried vacuum flasks of syringes,” says Mr Barker. “When they were stopped at checkpoints, they simply showed the syringes, said they were doctors, and were let through.”

This programme was so successful that it diversified into poultry hatcheries, spinning and weaving, and general nutrition. Over 3 000 women across the country were trained and the Taliban even asked Mr Barker to establish a women’s veterinary clinic in Kabul. But for donors, training rural women was not a priority, and funding declined.

An FAO programme trained women to train other women as veterinary assistants.
Photo: FAO/M. Win

The poultry management programme is still running, however. Currently 40 female trainers are working with rural women in 15 districts in five provinces of Afghanistan. “At the moment we are focussing on returnees, widows and the destitute,” says Dr Shaukat Safi, who oversees the training. “But now we have an opportunity to expand our activities.”

The livestock programme has now been absorbed into the Poverty Eradication And Community Empowerment (PEACE) Initiative, which promotes grassroots development and reconciliation.

Women’s rights: fundamental to real change

The livestock projects, collectively referred to as the ‘Women’s Programme’, constituted “a milestone for FAO in Afghanistan,” says Sissel Ekaas, Director of FAO's Gender and Population Division. “Through the livestock programme we learned how important women are in rural areas, and that understanding is an important foundation for future activities.”

She adds that, with the devastation of Afghan society, women are going to continue to play a key role in agricultural development for the foreseeable future. In fact, as rebuilding gets underway, it is likely that more men will migrate to urban areas for better paid work, leaving the women behind.

FAO is uniquely positioned to build on its experience and support Afghanistan’s rural women with programmes aimed at rebuilding and diversifying the rural economy. The United Nations is appealing for funds for a comprehensive programme of national reconstruction. FAO is coordinating agricultural rehabilitation activities, with special projects to help farm and nomadic families acquire and care for livestock.

“We are seeking $40 million in 2002 for emergency and longer term agricultural assistance,” says Anne Bauer, head of FAO’s emergency operations and the Organization’s focal point for Afghanistan. “But we must move swiftly from humanitarian aid to long-term development. It is clear that Afghanistan’s economy is a rural, family economy with women at its heart. We must ensure that they are at the forefront of Afghanistan’s recovery.”

21 January 2002


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