Small earnings mean survival for rural Afghan women

Article Date

07 March 2012

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

Although it’s been a few years since I lived in Afghanistan, the ingenuity and resilience of women in the country’s northern Dawlatabad district made a lasting impression on me. For them, home is along the foothills of the Hindu Kush mountains, a place where poor families struggle to eke out a living. I wanted to better understand how rural households were faring since the fall of the Taliban in 2001.

Amidst the dynamically changing landscape that was – and is – Afghanistan, the insecurity of conflict, a prolonged drought and the global food crisis had taken its toll on these villages. Families that had relied on agriculture for their livelihoods were forced to find other sources of income. Men often left home to look for work as jobs were hard to come by in this remote area. For those left behind, a household with more men had a better chance of making it. Women, meanwhile, had very few work opportunities since political and social circumstances had left them less educated and skilled than men. And the culture dictated that women should not work outside the home.

Still, despite such limitations, the women of Dawlatabad found a way. Their very survival depended on their ingenuity.

One of the creative paths they relied upon was to make and sell Afghan rugs. The rugs are renowned for their craftsmanship, a tradition passed down through generations. The intricate patterns woven into these carpets represent the heritage of diverse ethnic groups. But carpet weaving is physically demanding and the hours are long. A 9-meter carpet would take one person about a year to complete.

Creating such treasures is mostly women’s work, and it’s work that they can do at home. So that’s what many women did to help feed themselves and their children during periods of prolonged drought, rising food prices and increasing physical insecurity after the fall of the Taliban. For the poorest households, usually headed by a woman, weaving carpets was the sole source of income, though not a preferred one, as one woman acknowledged: “Only very poor people who have no other income still weave carpets.”

This is because the earnings are meager. Women weavers often worked on a small commission while middlemen took their rugs to markets. This meant working early mornings and late nights to finish their creations, while also completing their other daily household tasks of cooking, cleaning and caring for children. The resilience of the women – and men – was remarkable. Life was difficult for many of these families. They worked hard to meet their daily needs yet their hard work often was not enough, especially in the face of unexpected events like a drought or illness.

But for these rural families, a woman’s small but regular income became the backbone of survival during the economic crisis that ensued after the Taliban’s defeat. Women’s financial contributions to their family became even more important. And with these contributions came the potential for new levels of respect from others, including men.

It is striking how few choices women have and how much more they could contribute if they just had access to better opportunities, training, jobs and resources. My experience was just in one far-flung corner of the world, but the narrative is the same in many other places around the globe. For rural households at the margins, a woman’s ability to bring in a meager amount of money means survival. That’s powerful.

Imagine if women like those in Afghanistan’s Dawlatabad district had a real shot at a decent living. Imagine how much they could help reduce their family’s poverty – and that of their community.