FAO in Afghanistan

Empowering women farmers in Afghanistan

Hawa shows some of the mushrooms she’s cultivating. ©FAO/Afghan Aid

If one asks a male Afghan farmer about the role of his family’s women in the farm, he will readily admit that women do at least half of the work. This hasn’t been affected by the change of government in 2021. The subsequent partial bans on women working by the new authorities have hit the urban middle class but not farming communities. At most they have reduced opportunities for girls from rural backgrounds to find employment elsewhere, leading to even more focus on farming livelihoods.

Although Afghan women can easily continue working on farms along their male relatives, cultural barriers make it difficult for them to be heads of households. This is true especially of the public domain, to which women have limited access. The conflict that beset Afghanistan almost continuously from 1978 to 2021 led to the death of many men, leaving behind widows who usually survive with their children on charity. Economic stress and lack of gainful employment opportunities have, additionally, pushed many Afghan men to look for work abroad, supporting their families with remittances, which are often barely sufficient to cover the costs of daily life.

FAO’s focus on women-led households in rural communities seeks to address this disadvantageous position by providing such women with means of subsistence. With support of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), 81,400 households – about 700,000 people – received “Emergency livelihood assistance to safeguard food security and local food production of the most vulnerable rural families in Afghanistan affected by multiple shocks”, as the project implemented by FAO in 11 provinces from August 2022 to February 2024 was called.

In the remote mountainous province of Daikundi, FAO’s implementing partner Afghan Aid selected 1771 beneficiaries among the most vulnerable households, focusing on women. In the following we will examine three cases highlighted by our NGO partner: Arifa, Hawa and Khadija

Arifa, a farmer from the village of Nicho Oshu, found it hard to feed her family of six with her two jeribs (0.4 hectare or one acre) of land. She explained her main problem was finding good quality seed on the market. As part of the Japan-funded project, she received 10 kg of certified bean seeds, farming tools and technical training on bean cultivation. She applied her newfound skills and was pleasantly surprised by the yield of these beans. “It helped me overcome my problems” Arifa said.

Hawa has even less land. As a widow without a male family member to support her, she tirelessly worked in her small field every day, trying to cultivate sufficient crops to feed her three children. She found herself defeated by the fluctuating weather patterns – a result of climate change – and spent many hours hauling water to her field, as rain was not falling. This put her in a precarious position.

When Afghan Aid came to her village to select beneficiaries, Hawa showed her interest for mushroom farming. She was selected and received a mushroom cultivation package alongside technical training which enabled her to learn how to cultivate mushrooms, something she knew nothing about. Now she produces an average of 15 kg of mushrooms per month, worth about 4,500 Afghani (USD 62). This is a relatively decent wage in Afghanistan today. But the Afghan rural economy is only partially monetized, and people are in the habit of giving each other support rather than selling each other products and services. So Hawa and her neighbors have taken to eating the mushrooms and feeding their children with them. Occasionally she also sells some.

 “I find it a very good small business, it is clean, it doesn’t need land, and you don’t need to work in the field, so even women of the most conservative families can do this - inside their homes.” Hawa noted.

Khadija lives with her six children in a remote community of Shahristan district, Daikundi, where she has a few jeribs of land on which she cultivates wheat. Rainfed agricultural land has suffered particularly from the drought that hit Afghanistan from late 2021 to early 2024; the much reduced yields were catastrophic for her. Although FAO and its local partners cannot make it rain, they can distribute certified, locally produced Afghan wheat seeds that are more drought resistant, and provide fertilizers. Khadija thus received 50 kg of certified wheat seeds, 50 kg of urea and 50 kg of DAP fertilizer, as well as training on wheat cultivation. She was glad to see that her yield doubled compared to past years.

The JICA-funded intervention empowered women-headed households like those of Arifa, Khadija and Hawa. Their cases can even become an example to other Afghan women in rural communities, showing that living without male relatives does not mean they must live off charity and occasional remittances from abroad. With a bit of help they can set up their own business, or at least earn more income to provide for some of their household expenses, and feed their children with healthy food.