A window of economic opportunity for Afghan women

By Michelle Tolson

March 6, 2015

KABUL, Afghanistan—As the Afghan economy reels from a reduction in international funding and the withdrawal of international forces, female wage earners are becoming increasingly critical to the economic development of the country. Many private sector employers are recognizing and capitalizing on the contribution of Afghan women.

Despite this, there remains a marked disparity between men and women participating in the labor force. According to the Afghan government’s Central Statistics Organization, only 19 percent of women in Afghanistan participate in the labor force, while 80 percent of men are economically active:

The difference between men and women in Afghan culture is that men have the priority to get an education in the family but not females. Families have confidence in males more than in females to earn money,” says Zahra Khawari, Technical Program Manager and Gender Specialist with the Afghanistan Workforce Development Program, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and implemented by Creative Associates International.

In partnership with Afghanistan’s Deputy Ministry of Technical Vocational Education and Training, the Afghanistan Workforce Development Program seeks to find job placements or secure at least a 3 percent salary increase for 25,000 Afghans in semi-professional positions.

The program’s stated goal is that at least 25 percent of individuals trained will be women. To date, through local implementing partners, the program has trained more than 11,000 Afghans, 34 percent of whom are women.

New openings for Afghan women

Traditionally, the burden of supporting the family has rested firmly on the shoulders of Afghan males, according to a report by the Ministry of Economy. The report notes that while some women tend to work in the informal sector earning less than men, culturally they are not expected to be the family breadwinners, unless male family members are absent.

Now, with the economy in jeopardy, there is a growing need for women to contribute to their families’ economic wellbeing.   The International Labor Organization reports that under-employment in the country is estimated at 48 percent.

In some sectors, women are now finding work where men cannot, according to Khawari.

“You see this in places like call centers, which prefer women and ask for women.  Also, fields like medicine and education offer a lot of opportunities for women compared to men,” she says.

Success starts with jobs skills

IMG_5566-300x200 Maryam Sadat, a recent university graduate with a degree in Business Administration and a trainee in the Afghanistan Workforce Development Program, says that women’s role in economic progress at the family level and national level begins with education.

If we start from the family, we can see that women contributing to the economic development of the country is important.  The first step in making this happen is getting an education,” she says.  “This will help their family first and then it will help their country.  But if a woman doesn’t have an education, she can’t apply for a job.”

Sadat currently works as a Finance Officer at the Oruj Institute of Higher Education in Kabul, the first women’s-only university in Kabul.

Through an upcoming Financial Management course with local implementing partner SMART International Trainings and Consultancy, Sadat will improve her knowledge of financial management software, increasing not only her skills but also her wages.

Private sector entities sign Memorandums of Understanding with Afghanistan Workforce Development Program grantees to increase the wages of their employees after successful trainings by at least 3 percent.

To ensure that labor supply meets employers’ demands, the skills trainees learn in their courses are based on extensive labor market needs assessments conducted with Afghan employers.

“Today, our young people really need this,” says Sadat. “They are at home a lot, have nothing to do and need to find job.  They are asking for practical work training experience and this program offers that.”

Empowering women to lead

IMG_5536-300x200 With a solid foundation of jobs skills education, women are becoming more competitive applicants in the Afghan job market.  However, women need more than technical skills training in order to succeed.

“Women often do not have self-confidence and they need that to help them in their work,” says 23-year-old Zainab Bromand, a Job Placement Officer at Green Wish for Afghanistan Educational and Service Organization, which implements program trainings. “Besides the training skills, we are giving them leadership skills.”

Green Wish is designing courses specifically for women, under a USAID grant titled “Women in the Private Sector.”  The trainings are unique in supporting women’s development as competent employees through courses in business management, communications, report writing, accounting finance and media skills.

The trainings are tailored for women since, as Bromand says, the road to success for women is a bit different than it is for men.

She says that being less adapted to the workplace, women must be familiarized with the needs of a professional environment. Through program trainings, women gain critical professional development skills to aid them from the job search to day-to-day life in the workplace.

“When the AWDP trainings are done, women are taught to build a network, send professional emails, look for a job, have a successful job interview and, ultimately, find a suitable job.  When we are teaching them, we explain how to dress, talk and answer questions,” Bromand says.

Bromand, who completed a Project Management course through program partner SMART in 2013, knows about this transformation firsthand. After her training, she was promoted from a Database Officer at a large international development organization to an Assistant Manager position.

“From this training, I learned the hierarchy of activities, how to plan….I learned the skills of how to network with other people and how to pass an interview successfully.”

Now working as a Job Placement Officer at Green Wish, she has the opportunity to create a brighter future for other women.

The change in women trainees like Bromand from the beginning to end of their courses is evident.

Khawari, of the Afghanistan Workforce Development Program, says that graduates of program courses speak with confidence and seem more optimistic. “We actually have happy job seekers now,” she says.

Broader change from the workforce out

IMG_5653-300x200 As more and more women graduate from the Afghanistan Workforce Development program with the professional skills, technical training and confidence they need, the views of employers and men in society about women’s roles in the workplace are also beginning to shift.

This program “builds [women’s] capacity and trains them for a position that they actually deserve,” says Bromand. “When men can see that women work well, they can see that they deserve their position.  If they are not a symbolic leader but good in their positions, it changes the perception that men have about women’s working competences.”

One female trainee at a time, the program is paving the way for Afghan women to contribute to a more meaningful economic development of the country as Afghanistan begins to stand on its own feet.

“If women participate in social affairs, if their capacity is built, it has a direct effect on the economy,” says Bromand.

Edited by Aziz Gulbahari and Jillian Slutzke

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