New program to facilitate women's employment

Kabul, December 20, 2004 (IRIN) - Afghanistan's Ministry of Women's Affairs (MOWA) is seeking employment opportunities for tens of thousands of unqualified women in the country. The initiative is part of newly created UN backed employment services centers which are expected to operate in nine provinces of the country, according to MOWA.

The centres will be established to tackle unemployment and provide training opportunities for unqualified job seekers, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

"Unemployment is very, very high among women. In fact most Afghan women are dependent on men as they lack skills due to illiteracy and years of conflict," Habiba Sarabi, Afghan women's affairs minister, told IRIN. The minister established the first women's employment centre in Kabul last Thursday. Sarabi said the only skill most of the women job seekers had was tailoring and embroidery, which was not applicable to the current labor market.

"There is a misunderstanding that women can only do handicraft. But through this centre we will facilitate different kinds of training so that they can be employed in various jobs," she added.

Unemployment remains a very serious problem in Afghanistan that is feeding underdevelopment, as many people lack skills due to more than 20 years of conflict. Widespread illiteracy, at over 70 percent of the population, is another major cause of high unemployment.

Women suffer not just a lack of skills but also cultural barriers to the world of work. In many rural areas of male-dominated Afghan society, women are not allowed to even leave the house.

Maleha Sadeeq, a school teacher, has been jobless for a year. She is forbidden from working in boys' schools by her family. "My husband allows me to work only in girls' school but I was not able to find such a job nearby," Sadeeq told IRIN, adding that cultural complexities were the main obstacle to women's employment. "Even some educated men do not want their female family members to work in offices with other men," she maintained.

Meanwhile, according Sarabi, in some provinces MOWA was not even able to find capable women to work in the women's affairs departments. "We could not find a single woman to work in a MOWA department in certain provinces of the south," she said.

More than 25 percent of work-eligible people are jobless and most of these need proper training to gain up-to-date skills. "There are 260,000 civil servants in the government and only 25 percent are women," Mohammad Ghaus Bashiri, deputy ministry of labor and social affairs, told IRIN.

While unemployment is very high among both men and women, the return of hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees from neighbouring Pakistan and Iran means that the problem is getting even worse.

Bashiri said unemployment in Afghanistan was estimated to be around 30 percent, with another 30 percent working part-time or in jobs for which they are overqualified. The main challenge is to build up a proper education and vocational training system that provides the skills demanded in the labor market, he added.

The first employment centre was established in the capital earlier this year. Nearly 4,000 job seekers used the centre in its first three months. "So far we have been able to facilitate employment opportunities for thousands of job seekers through our Kabul centre," Masood Parwanfar, an officer of the German aid agency AGEF, which runs these centers, told IRIN. AGEF is an association of experts in the fields of migration and development cooperation that works in employment projects in Afghanistan.

Parwanfar said most of the women that had used them were seeking jobs as guards, cooks or using handicrafts skills. "Women's employment is very, very challenging as most of the female job seekers have no skills or only very basic ones," he said.

The other eight centers will be established in the next 12 months in major cities of the country. These employment centers are also expected to create a database on training providers for those out of work. "Job placement services, referral services to vocational training and a labor market information database are to be established," the AGEF officer said.