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Afghan widows build life through own hands

Kabul, December 6, 2007 (Xinhua): "No one can imagine how miserable a widow's life could be," said Fatima Akbari, 42, an Afghan widow and former refugee.

Mrs. Akbari, who migrated to Iran to feed and raise her three children, after the killing of her husband -- the family's only bread earner by Taliban some 12 years ago, returned home in 2004 and established a carpentry school to generate income one year later.

Standing in the carpentry school, a mud-walled courtyard in Afghan capital Kabul, Fatima, the school's principal, told Xinhua that the vocational institution, with support from an international organization, is offering free carpentry education to the widowed sisters so as to help them earn bread through own hands.

"An Afghan woman, once becoming a widow, will not be welcomed by neither her own or her husband's family," said Fatima, with lightening color shining in the eyes. "We're left to count on ourselves."

Several years' life as a refugee working between construction sites in the neighboring Iran made Fatima capable of carpentry, a kind of work usually chosen by men in Afghanistan.

Back to her homeland three years ago, Fatima developed a plan, which finally turned out to be a carpentry vocational center.

"We are able to create value and generate income for ourselves through our own hands," said Fatima. "I want my fellow sisters to understand the point, and that's why I have started the school."

Women are among the weakest groups in terms of economic power and social rights in Afghanistan, a conservative country, which has seen decades-long of war, factional fighting and civil strife.

Taliban regime during its six-year reign, which was toppled in late 2001 by the U.S.-led invasion, had confined women in their homes and deprived them of education and work rights. Those women, after losing their husbands, had to shoulder the life burden alone in the war-torn country, though most of them were unskilled.

Over two million widows, mostly caused by war, are now living in the post-Taliban nation and those who are unskilled or with little work experiences have even been forced to beg. In Kabul's dust-filled roads, usually jammed by imported used cars, one can always see women begging, holding a baby in arm.

A total of 60 widows, Fatima said, are currently learning carpentry in the school which in fact is an income generating project located in one of the poorest areas of western Kabul's suburbs, from where majority of their learners come.

A six-month long training course on carpentry technique is free of charge to the learners.

Besides Fatima, who serves as principal and instructor, the school has two other teachers.

Under a large tent in the courtyard, Xinhua reporter saw women were busy working in three groups under teachers' guidance, and besides them are piled wood, two carpentry machine tools and a couple of pieces of newly-made furniture.

Fatima said after three-months training, the learners have already gained the ability of making small tables, television stands, and chairs, etc.

What's more encouraging is that the widows' carpentry school has managed to sign contracts with furniture marketing firms and sell the work of arts by the learners a little cheaper than the prices in market.

Half of the revenue will be paid back to the supporting organization and the remaining half goes to the pockets of the learners or junior women carpenters.

"Each learner can earn a monthly average of 2,500 Afghanis (about 50 U.S. dollars)," said Fatima. "Sometimes if we are lucky each one can earn 15,000 Afghanis (or 300 dollars)."

Aziza, 40, a known diligent learner here, is very grateful to the school for helping improve her life. "My husband was killed in war and I had to raise six children by myself," she said. "For a long time we could only survive through begging and receiving donation food."

Aziza never attended school before and it was hard for her to catch up with the carpentry course in the first beginning.

"I was upset, and even doubted if carpentry might be just unsuitable for women," she said. "But finally, with the help of fellow sisters, I have gotten the capability and it is a really happy thing for me to see my own work being sold to furniture companies."

"The most important is that, now I am confident that I can work and stand on my own feet," Aziza stressed.

Like many other women at the vocational center, Aziza has confidence about her future. After graduation from the widows' carpentry school, Aziza wishes to run a similar school to help fellow widows in the war-devastated country.

The Post-Taliban Afghanistan has been experiencing pleasing changes and positive development including enrollment more than six million children to school and women empowerment in political and social and economic field, though it is believed that it takes more time for the Central Asian country to fully recover from war aftermath.