Note: A shorter version of this piece first appeared at The Hill.
The risks for women and girls in Afghanistan are increasing. The recent bomb attack on a girls’ school in Kabul was a well-organized strike aimed at intimidating girls and those who work to educate them. Meanwhile, peace talks between Afghanistan’s government and the Taliban remain in flux. As Americans get set to pull all troops from Afghanistan by early September, preserving the gains made in women’s rights over the past two decades must be a key focus of the international community and civil society.
Women in Afghanistan have come a long way since Taliban rule. An analysis of a women’s business database created and maintained by the Afghanistan Women’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry (AWCCI) shows that the majority of women-owned businesses are less than five years old. This information, drawn from 17,639 businesses in Afghanistan, means most women tenaciously started their businesses amid considerable insecurity and worsening economic conditions following the 2014 drawdown of international troops and development assistance. Meanwhile, the country’s constitution sets aside 27 percent of seats in parliament for women, and the tide of public opinion has turned to approve of women working outside the home.
Similar themes emerged throughout conversations with businesswomen across the country: rural women lack the same opportunity to launch or expand their businesses that women enjoy in urban centers, the government could do more to promote gender equity, and insecurity presents a direct threat to women’s livelihoods.
Rural women in Afghanistan experience unequal access to jobs, education, and other services in comparison with their urban counterparts. This limits their ability to grow and sustain businesses. Dedicated market areas and stalls for women sellers should be established in every province to improve the economic conditions of women outside urban centers. Currently, women’s markets exist in 12 provinces, but that leaves women operating micro-, small-, and medium-sized (MSMEs) businesses in the remaining 22 provinces without safe, convenient market access.
Women in rural areas would also benefit from additional business trainings supported by the international donor community; while numerous entrepreneurship courses have been offered by donors over the past two decades, most of these training programs have targeted women in Kabul and provincial capitals, leaving behind the most marginalized areas of the country. ”The government and international organizations working with women-owned businesses must further […] include rural women in their work too,” one businesswoman in Nangarhar said. “We should create stories and use existing platforms to the benefit of women in rural areas, who are interested but have no opportunity [to participate].” While achieving this may be challenging amid the current political and security climate, women in rural areas cannot continue to be left behind.
The government should take additional steps to improve inclusion for women-owned businesses. Procurement practices in particular should be revised to ensure a greater share of government contracts are awarded to women-owned businesses. Steep requirements for the age of business and income often exclude women from bidding. While the government has instituted preferential scoring for women-owned businesses while rating bids, this does little to improve women’s ability to win contracts if they fail to meet the entry-level requirements for most requests for proposals. AWCCI successfully led advocacy for the five percent preferential clause in the National Procurement Procedure in 2018 and are now calling policymakers to go one step further. The Afghan government and National Procurement Authority (NPA) should institute a 10 percent quota for women-owned businesses in procurement to enhance inclusion and challenge the control of the market by a few politically connected businesses.
“As we stand in such difficult, uncertain and unpredictable time for the future of Afghan women we ask the international community to secure commitments from the Afghan government and Taliban for women’s rights and make their support conditional to it” says Afsana Rahimi, Chairperson of the AWCCI.
Afghanistan’s future remains precarious, and the international community has a responsibility to continue supporting the partnerships it has built in the country over the past two decades. AWCCI was prepared to present its recommendations to international stakeholders during a parallel event at the Istanbul peace conference, which has now been postponed. What is clear is that the benefits of women’s entrepreneurship have had a ripple effect on the larger community. Women-owned businesses employ women at four times the overall national rate of women’s employment and contribute to broader efforts to strengthen the economy.
The reform recommendations proposed by the WNBA offer a roadmap for achieving a gender equitable economy and concrete steps for protecting women’s hard-fought gains and expanding those opportunities and rights to a broader cross section of Afghan women. Afghan women have come a long way in the last two decades—far enough that a women’s business organization is leading an organized private sector attempt to improve conditions for women entrepreneurs.
Erinn Benedict is a Program Officer at the Center for Women’s Economic Empowerment at CIPE, and Manizha Wafeq is the co-founder of several organizations to advocate for women’s economic empowerment, including the PEACE THROUGH BUSINESS® Network, and Leading Entrepreneurs for Afghanistan’s Development (LEAD), a predecessor organization for the Afghanistan Women Chamber of Commerce and Industry (AWCCI).