Women’s Economic Participation in Afghanistan

06.17.2019 | Shahnaz Nasr

Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, Afghanistan has experienced economic growth and increased access to public services. However, socio-economic outcomes have not improved. Nearly half of the population falls within or below the poverty line. According to the World Bank, the poverty rate stagnated at 36 percent and inequality increased from 2008 to 2012. While some progress has been made to improve human capital, Afghanistan remains among the poorest countries in the world.

The combination of declining foreign aid, weak private sector growth, and low human capital makes the unemployment rate high. And the female labor force participation rate remains very low. These realities compounded further by issues such as insecurity, illiteracy, and cultural customs create barriers to women’s economic participation in their local markets.

Women’s exclusion is holding Afghanistan back economically. Research has shown that women spend more of their income on food and human capital investments for their children than men. In turn, this supports long-term economic growth and reduces poverty levels. A focus on women’s economic empowerment is not only good for women; it is important for Afghanistan’s future.

There are ways to challenge these barriers. Consultations in local areas with religious and local leaders, and elders will help educate communities about the benefits of involving women in the workforce, and how it strengthens families and society as a whole. Their participation would enhance everyone’s quality of life through income generating activities.

As a National Coordinator for the Economic Inclusion Department at the Aga Khan Foundation—Afghanistan, I am able to give back to my community by ensuring women are given entrepreneurship training through my organization’s market development program. Leadership training and support is critical for the success of Afghan women entrepreneurs, and this has motivated me to learn more about how to promote that success. The George W. Bush Institute’s WE Lead program taught me the skills needed to foster economic empowerment for women in my country.

Bush Institute WE Lead Scholars during the training portion of their program at CIPE.

Before joining the program, I did not realize I was a leader and could be part of the much-needed change. After the six-month program, which included discussions with experts at the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE), I opened my own saving group, aimed at promoting affordable saving and credit services in a village or community.

While some women have the support of their family or community to begin their own business, a lack of monetary resources can be a hindrance for many. This group and others like it, provide women the means to borrow the capital needed to get their business up and running.

On a more local level, I am also establishing a women’s only market in the city center of Faizabad, Afghanistan. Female entrepreneurship represents a vast untapped source of innovation, job creation, and economic growth. In the province of Badakhshan, many societal traditions hold women back from being a visible part of society. For example, many women are skilled craftsmen or honey bee keepers, but are not able to sell their products in the markets. They must rely on their male spouses or relatives, making it difficult to hold complete ownership of their economic activities. A women’s only market will create a comfortable and thriving space for female entrepreneurs by removing many of the societal barriers that currently exist.

I am one of many who are finding opportunities to lift women up in Afghanistan. But for the country to truly reach its economic potential, we need the continued support of the global community.  That support includes policies and programs that advance women’s economic empowerment and well-being, which are essential for achieving the vision of a peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan.


Shahnaz Nasr is a George W. Bush Institute WE Lead Scholar.