Applying a gender lens cultivates tailored solutions to workforce barriers, say experts

By Natalie Lovenburg

October 3, 2017

Women in conflict and fragile settings require tailored training and employment services to hone the skills needed to seek and maintain a job, according to workforce development experts on a panel at the 2017 Global Youth Economic Opportunities Summit.

Organized by Making Cents International, the annual three-day summit brought together more than 500 youth development experts and practitioners from more than 55 countries to collaborate and exchange knowledge.

At the Sept. 28 panel session called “Women at the Forefront of a Skilled Workforce in Conflict and Fragile Environments,” experts from Creative Associates International and CARE USA discussed evidence-based approaches in implementing demand-driven workforce development projects in countries like Afghanistan, where women face particular cultural hurdles in addition to the challenges of a fragile environment.

“Afghanistan is one of the most challenging and difficult countries to be a woman,” said panelist Salem Helali, Senior Technical Advisor for Workforce Development and Youth at Creative. “Especially for a woman who works and tries to reach her goals and aspirations as a human being and as an equal partner to man.”

Creative’s Salem Helali facilitated an interactive discussion on how to apply demand-driven workforce development approaches to train and employ young women in various contexts.

Helali presented specific interventions being leveraged as part of the Afghanistan Workforce Development Program, which seeks to address the country’s high unemployment by improving the quality of trainings in business and technical areas. The program gives women ages 18 to 30 the opportunity to access demand-driven training and placement in private sector jobs. It is funded by U.S. Agency for International Development and implemented by Creative.

About 63 percent of Afghans are under 25 years of age. With this high number of youth, the workforce development program emerged in 2012 to address the immediate needs of a growing population by empowering them with targeted job training that sharpens skills and links them to the labor market, especially for young women, explained Helali.

To date, the Afghanistan Workforce Development Program has provided more than 39,000 unemployed workers, as well as mid-level employees, with training that aligns with market demands. More than 36 percent of those trained have been women—exceeding USAID’s original target of 25 percent.

“The increase of training and employing women–especially in a fragile economy of a conflict-affected environment–was revolutionary,” said Helali.

“The increase of training and employing women–especially in a fragile economy of a conflict-affected environment–was revolutionary.”

Salem Helali, Senior Technical Advisor, Workforce Development & Youth, Creative Associates International

Incorporating women into Afghanistan’s economy is challenging but essential for the growth of the country. An increase in female labor force participation—or a reduction in the gap between women’s and men’s labor force participation—will result in faster economic growth, according UN Women.

Henry Mtende Swira, Senior Technical Advisor, Youth and Livelihoods at CARE USA provided more context to the current status of women participating in the global labor market.

“Women are disadvantaged relative to men on every global indicator,” said Swira. “Fewer women enter the workforce and those who do tend to be less secure.”

Harassment in the workplace and pay gaps compared to male colleagues are two of many reasons why women tend to not enter the labor market, he explained.

To promote gender parity, a tool to measure inequality between women and men, Swira explained that the private and public sectors can play a lead role in empowering women to enter the labor market.

“The private and public sector facilitation is very critical when it comes to collecting the demand from the private sector and the supply of skills in employing women,” said Swira.

Addressing gender gaps in Afghanistan’s labor market

Creative’s Afghanistan Workforce Development Program employs a four-step model, including:

  • First, assessing the needs of private sector employers;
  • Second, designing and adapting workforce curriculum to meet those needs;
  • Third, using that curriculum to train qualified workers; and
  • Finally, connecting those training graduates with the jobs that match their new skills.

Panelist Laurel Bradley, Technical Manager for Workforce Development and Youth at Creative, explained that when applying the approach, the project team found that gender norms about women’s roles in Afghan society were not being fully addressed. Once the gender gap was clear, the program team devised a new strategy to fill the void.

“Looking at the contextual realities on the ground that the program staff needed to take into account, the question was asked, ‘What if we just train a cohort of women?’” she said.

The Afghanistan Workforce Development Program staff brought the women participants together in women only groups and provided targeted support and training to achieve positive outcomes in a more welcoming environment.

“We opened a dialogue by asking questions and thinking about what it really means to be a woman living in these environments.”  

Laurel Bradley, Technical Manager, Workforce Development & Youth, Creative Associates International

“We looked at the community context as a whole,” said Bradley. “When designing recruitment materials for training opportunities for women, we discussed how the materials should be created to be shared with important people [husbands, fathers or others] in their lives as part of their decision to pursue the training opportunity.”

Bradley said if the women had questions or concerns about the materials or training activities, they were encouraged to communicate the feedback to the program trainers and appropriate adjustments would be made.

“We opened a dialogue by asking questions and thinking about what it really means to be a woman living in these environments,” she said.

These adjustments to the program training successfully challenged and addressed social norms in order to prepare the women to enter male-dominated fields, explained Bradley. This gender-sensitive approach “really started to build trust between the program trainers and community members,” she added.

The shift in strategy resulted in more than 14,000 Afghan women completing training, exceeding the original goal of about 6,000 women—a huge success from the program team’s perspective.

“By applying a community-based approach and through partnership, there were many points where strategies were adapted to acknowledge the social constraints and respond with gender sensitivity to make this program as open and accessible to women as possible,” said Bradley.

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