Modest gains at risk: Afghan women face multi-dimensional challenges for economic participation

Worsening security conditions and societal polarization pose a risk to modest gains for gender justice. We explored three critical aspects.

Women's day in South Asia often reminds us of a glass at best half full. Most women continue to be prevented from fully participating in the economy – a trend only worsened by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Female participation in the labour force remains low due to a range of impediments, including cultural and societal norms. Indicators for women's employment, income, and wealth are bleak, as there is little to no progress in legal reforms favouring women's employment and entrepreneurship.

On 6 March, the Kabul office of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung convened some 70 entrepreneurs, officials, academics, and civil society activists to address female participation in the Afghan economy. Three expert panels and a photo exhibition explored three critical aspects of women's economic participation – entrepreneurship, informal labour, and conditions at the workplace.

The challenges Afghan women face are gigantic, such as the ongoing war threatening their livelihood. Where poverty, a lack of economic opportunities, discrimination, exclusion, and marginalization exist, all talents, ideas, and bright minds are needed more than ever. Female entrepreneurship is a reality in Afghanistan. Women have created employment opportunities for men and women alike. Many of them struggle in the same ways their male counterparts do. Lengthy business registration procedures, low levels of experience, limited access to markets, and the lack of capital and legal security are impediments to success, as are social pressures and discouraging factors. Afghan women overwhelmingly work in the informal sector, where we meet them as street vendors, domestic workers, in agriculture, or in care work that give women low opportunity to earn an income and provide for their families. While no one can deny that women provide goods and services to millions of Afghans every day, they are often left without protection from exploitation or hazards, with no social benefits, insurances, and fair wages.

Afghanistan's first female Minister of Economy, Dr. Karima Hamid Faryabi, delivered the keynote speech at the event. Referring to her own experience as a carpet weaver, a doctor, a women leader in northern Afghanistan, and now a cabinet minister, she acknowledged that the road for women is not easy in her country. However, women should have courage, solidarity, and support each other, she said. Reflecting on what the government could do, she stressed education as the most critical area. She also stressed that the low economic participation of women is an additional burden for Afghanistan's economy. While some women hold leadership positions both in the public and private sectors, some five million Afghan women work informally – often without generating an income for themselves independent of husbands or fathers. There are some 54,000 women-run small enterprises; to support them, a priority needs to be put on providing them with market access in and outside the country.

Why is female labour force participation in Afghanistan low and female entrepreneurship still a rare phenomenon? The first panel addressed this question.The endemic insecurity in the past years has contributed to a status quo that sees most Afghan women out of work, many of them confined to their houses. For instance, those who weave carpets for sale in their houses rarely get credit or payment as their male relatives sell the products at market, and prevent the women’s access to that market. Women who manage to establish small enterprises find themselves in stiff competition with larger companies for the custom of international organizations, investors, and other clients who are often averse to the risk of trading with smaller, less established suppliers. In addition, women face serious issues when seeking loans from banks due to high interest rates and financial dependence on spouses and fathers. To encourage women, despite these obstacles, to start their own businesses or take more initiative as an employee, a supportive family and the presence of female role models are essential. Also, technology has become an ally of female entrepreneurs, allowing them to use social media and e-commerce platforms to connect with customers and investors directly. In the past years, women have made some progress in networking and supporting each other, e.g., through the Afghan Women Chamber of Commerce, and female entrepreneurship expands beyond carpet weaving. However, there are still several provinces, like Nuristan, where no women-owned companies can be found.

In these rural provinces and all over Afghanistan, most women work in the informal economy, which was addressed by the second panel. Here, the endemic lack of job security or fair wages is omnipresent, and the idea of improving the situation through collective bargaining a distant thought. So far, the government had not managed to meaningfully address the issue or increase women's share in the formal economy significantly. At the same time, many women themselves remain hesitant to formalize their businesses, as many lack formal education and are disincentivized by a complicated bureaucracy and tax liabilities.

A third expert panel addressed the situation and needs of women at the workplace. In the public sector, the first problem for women even in high-level government positions is that their presence is still considered tokenistic, which puts their albeit meaningful contribution under scrutiny. This is worsened by expectations that female government officials should behave in the opposite way to their male counterparts – quiet, obedient, and following gender roles. Here, an incremental generational change could help overcome such stereotypes. Secondly, alliance building and networking between women are undermined by a constant need to compete for women's few resources and opportunities. Also, in the private sector, women are often underestimated when it comes to technical or higher positions, and find themselves in a worse starting position than their male counterparts even to enter the job market, despite some affirmative action efforts. Many women successfully graduate from university, but most of the time, employment opportunities available to them are short-lived and precarious. This makes them even more vulnerable to discrimination and harassment at the workplace, a phenomenon still tied to impunity and stigmatization of the victims.

The inclusion of women in the Afghan economy continues to be a long-term goal for social partners and international allies. While gains remain fragile without communal and broad societal support, incremental change is possible where men and women join forces and recognize women's participation as an investment in a better future.

Dr. Magdalena Kirchner is the Director of the FES Afghanistan Office. 

Mahdi Suroush & Fatima Airan are members of the FES Young Leaders Forum 2020-21 cohort.

For more information on the work by Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in Afghanistan contact the FES Afghanistan office, visit their website or follow their official Facebook or Twitter for daily updates.

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