FAO in Afghanistan

Planting hope in the hearts of Afghan women

Nazifa Natiq visits Gul Chehra, a female livestock owner assisted by FAO with a livestock protection package in Samangan province, at Gul’s house. ©FAO/Katrina Omari

An interview with Nazifa Natiq, Regional Resilience Officer (FAOAF) on challenges, resilience and being a woman in Afghanistan

Based in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan’s fourth-largest city, Nazifa took time from her busy schedule to speak with us about the positive impact of the Organization’s programmes in the region, the importance of supporting Afghanistan’s farmers and the critical role women have in improving agrifood systems.

Greetings Nazifa! What is your current role and past experience?

I joined FAO in 2006 as a Food Security, Nutrition and Gender Officer working in the north-eastern province of Badakhshan. After a couple of years, I became a Regional Officer as well as a gender focal point. I later moved from Badakhshan to Mazar-e-Sharif joining the Emergency team and working closely with Nutrition and Food Security, which is where I am now.

I’m currently working as Regional Resilience Officer in Mazar-e-Sharif. I support the formulation of project proposals for emergency response and disaster risk management, organizing events and trainings regarding food management and distribution with local partners in the region. There has been a change in how we work together, especially with men, which has made things harder. In the past we didn’t have any problems to work alongside both men and women but now the movement for women is more restricted.

With all the restrictions imposed on women, what is it like being the only female colleague in your team?

There are five of us in the team and we work very well together. All colleagues in my team are supportive and without them I couldn’t go to the field alone. The only time that was difficult was during the collapse of the last government, as it meant restricted movement for me, especially coming to the office. No one could come to the office, everyone stayed home, but after two months my office decided we could go back out in the field to train the women in five provinces of Afghanistan: Balkh, Jowzjan, Takhar, Parwan and Herat. We already had a plan to support the women in Afghanistan regarding cooking demonstrations and soybean nutrition valueI trained groups of women, and they were very enthusiastic because at the time there weren’t many jobs and the price of food was very high. The women are so grateful for this opportunity, at least 1 260 women have received training on soybean nutrition value in these uncertain times.

As a team we all contribute to the work FAO is mandated to deliver and everyone can learn from each other. However, now it is harder - women staff can’t work with male staff. In addition to that, there isn’t an opportunity for men and women to receive Trainer of Trainers training together, so it’s just FAO women training the women and men training the men – it’s a bit of a challenge.

How have you overcome this and other challenges?

When I came back into the office after a long time, I was afraid, but now I work in a separate room. I wear a hijab and just come into work and then go back home. I’ve had no trouble - there was just one time when I was stopped and asked, “where is your Mahram?” I was with another woman in the car (a Mahram is a male guardian who should accompany women when going outside the house). They asked me to go back home and I explained I was just going to the office and then back home, but they said to me “no”, and that in the future I have to come with my chaperone. Now my son comes with me, which is not ideal for him because he’s young and a fresh engineering graduate who now he has to help his mother go to the office and come back again to escort me home. However, I had been working from home for a long time, so I’m happy to go back to working from the office! I can't imagine not being able to work and deliver the fundamental assistance to farmers, especially women. Despite the restrictions, I’m confident I can continue working to avert the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. 

What programmes are you working on at the moment?

The programmes I'm involved in are nutrition centred, specifically with the soybean and other emergency projects. At the beginning of March, I went on a field mission to Sholgara district, just south of the centre of Balkh province, to conduct a soybean cooking training with female farmers. Most of the Afghan women and children are malnourished due to the lack of readily available food characterised by high prices as well as lack of income generating activities. In addition to this, the challenges are further compounded by lesser opportunities for women and girls to participate in government departments, social protection and livelihood initiatives and cannot go to school. We also have the home gardening programme, where women receive training on kitchen gardening. It is theoretical training regarding the importance of seed identification, land preparation, cultivation, marketing and harvesting. The women are also trained in beekeeping, which allows them to make a good contribution to the economy. Sadly, women don’t own land – all land belongs to men. Women-headed households don’t match the criteria for wheat cultivation assistance, so they only receive unconditional cash assistance and also some vegetable seeds and tools for home gardening. Women are involved in other types of activities as well, such as home gardening, livestock farming, food processing, and poultry farming.

What is the impact of the programmes you’ve been delivering?

According to the IPC, this year 19.7 million people are facing a high level of food insecurity. During the current rainy season (June – November) our projects focus on food availability and access and humanitarian support for all.

Our projects will deliver some income to families. For example, if a farm is cultivating soybeans, then the whole family can use and benefit from it. The good thing is that we train the mothers to use soybeans which are cheaper than other types of cereal - you can grow them at home and then use them as a rich source of protein. We train the women how to cook, use and prepare soybeans and then for at least three days they can use them for food and sell some at market. The women also receive lessons in home economics, home gardening and cultivating vegetables to cook at home for their families, which is very beneficial, especially as nutrition for children since the cost of oil and rice is very high.

What is the reaction to these programmes?

The feedback from the community is that they want us to continue to support women because women can’t go out and work due to the situation in Afghanistan right now. It’s good that in my work at FAO we’re able to train women to work in agriculture, giving them the opportunity of a livelihood and a better life during this tough period.

Do you have any visits planned?

I’ve just returned from the training I organized in Sholgar district of Balkh province – it was great because all the women were very active and glad to be participating in the cooking session. They were all very keen to cook; for example, they wanted to know the percentage of soybean needed and how to prepare culture (live bacteria, such a yeast used in food production) for spaghetti, rice, qorma and bolani. (Qorma and bolani are local Afghani foods. Qorma’s ingredients are soyabean, onion, tomato, garlic and salt while bolani’s are wheat and soya flour, potato, vegetables).

They grow soybeans at home and then use them for their family consumption, as well as make cakes and cookies for sale at market.

Anything you’ve shared with the women that you like to cook for your family?

Most of the recipes I showed the women to cook are common favorite foods for our family as well as the locals. For example: bolanipakawraqorma, rice and cookies whose main ingredient is soybean. Though the cake, cookies and soymilk were very new to them. However, it’s very easy to make. With one handheld machine, we can make a lot of milk! It makes me happy that they want to know more about nutrition and not just how to cook food. A lack of knowledge exists among the mothers in Afghanistan, they don’t have time to watch TV, listen to the radio or read anything to find out about the nutrition and health needed for the family. Through these sessions, we help deliver the message to them and as a result, the knowledge they develop will be good for their health, the economy and overall wellbeing. 

What vegetables are you growing in your garden?

I have a small garden where I grow eggplant, okra, cucumber, coriander, squash and other vegetables.

When I joined FAO, there was one women’s garden established by the WFP for the department of women affairs. FAO has provided some greenhouses for the women, and I used this as a training centre to teach women on gardening and provide them with some vegetable seeds. They have to grow, water, weed – everything and then we teach them how to preserve and process the vegetables for a long time. I also provide them with some equipment for food processing so they can sell them at market. Everyone from the local UN agencies used to come in and ask to buy the products from FAO supported women’s self-help group because the quality of vegetables was so high – the jams, pickles and chutneys - and the women would receive a good income from these purchases.

Is this initiative just in Mazar or across the whole country?

It’s everywhere - all across Afghanistan!

What is the feeling in Afghanistan at the moment?

The economic situation in the country has significantly deteriorated following the political developments in August 2021 and it has been made worse due to the pandemic, increased conflict and drought. As a result, the humanitarian situation is getting worse every day - there’s no good quality food available. Going to the district we see families who are all really weak, telling us they only have tea with a piece of bread in the morning and the same for dinner; they don’t have anything else to eat. The price of everything is very high and income is very low. I can’t imagine not working and not being able to give assistance to farmers, especially women. For a while I was stuck at home, but now I’m very happy because at least I can continue my work and help these women. I try to deliver everything on time for the community. I’m liaising and coordinating with the office, with suppliers, so I’m always implementing everything that is needed and if there’s a problem, I solve it! All the projects in our area are implemented earlier than other parts of Afghanistan.

I believe in empowering rural communities and women in agriculture – it’s critical to improve local food production, protect livestock, increase rural income, improve the food security of the poor as well as increase the resilience of women in farming. Family access to the market is good for the project delivery. We’re now working on a vegetable seed distribution for home gardening and processing value chain project and I’m hopeful. I try to ignite hope in the hearts of the women across the districts.

Any final words?

Women leadership is critical for effective delivery and assistance. Our voice and leadership is needed to inform the design of Afghanistan. This is the only way. One thing that keeps us going is the encouragement and solidarity we receive from women leaders around the world, there is a collective power in this solidarity and women from every corner of the world supporting women groups and engaging with Afghan women helps our country.

Is there a woman leader you find inspiring?

Nazia Baharustani, Zofnoon Natiq are women leaders that I find inspiring in our community. They have immense courage, have deep empathy for others, express appreciation openly, and foster equality. They are emotionally healthy and healed and believe in collective power.