Women enter business world

Kabul, December 14, 2004 – Afghan women are playing a leading role in developing small businesses all across the country.

At an awards ceremony last month honoring entrepreneurs who have successfully started up small businesses with the assistance of various microfinance programs, 18 of the 23 recipients were women.

The awards ceremony was part of a worldwide effort by the United Nations to call attention to microcredit and microfinance programmes. Such programmes provide small loans, sometimes amounting to only 100 US dollars, to individuals who would otherwise not be able to borrow the money necessary to start their own businesses.

While the ministry of commerce could not provide figures on how many women work outside the home, Mina Sherzoy, head of the Entrepreneurship Development Office for Afghan Women at the ministry of commerce, said that the number is increasing day by day.

Sherzoy noted that women make up more than half the country's population and more than half are widows. It makes sense, then, that they should play a leading role not only in supporting their families but also in the country's economic development.

Five non-governmental organizations, NGOs, that operate microcredit programs in the country - CARE International, Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee, BRAC, Parwaz, an Afghan NGO, the Paris-based Mission d'Aide au Développement des Economies Rurales en Afghanistan, Madera, and the Washington-based Foundation for International Community Assistance, FINCA, nominated businesspeople for the awards, with 300 dollar and 100 dollar prizes.

Mah Gul, 40, a tailor from the western city of Herat, proudly showed her work at the event. She was awarded a 300 dollar prizes for her "hard work and energy".

"Three months ago I was given 6,000 afghanis [120 dollars] by FINCA to start making curtains and clothes.... If there was nobody to lend the money to me, I would have to go to the houses of rich people to work there and wash their clothes," she said.

Shaqila, the program's chief loan supervisor in Herat, said her organization has given loans to 250 women there since 2003.

She said that most of the women have taken out loans out to start carpet-weaving or clothes-making businesses. Each is loaned 6,000 afghanis to start with and after three months, if they've paid it back, they can borrow up to10,000 afghanis more. If they pay back that amount after four months, they then can borrow up to 15,000 afghanis. FINCA requires that borrowers put up collateral for the first loan.

Katrin Fakiri, the Afghan-American director of Parwaz, said her organization, has given loans to 600 women living in Kabul province since 2003 and has plans to expand to the central province of Wardak and southern province of Ghazni.

"When I started the work in Kabul, Parwaz was not known, and after that the word spread... Then a lot of women came day by day and they started businesses such as tailoring and raising chickens," she said. "At first I thought that maybe we would give money and they wouldn't pay it back... No one took the money and ran."

Abdul Aziz Sediqi, the manager of Parwaz in Kabul, said 98 per cent of the women who borrow money repay their loans on time. Unlike many other microfinance organizations, the women who borrow from Parwaz are not required to put up any collateral since they are so poor.

Faree Gul, a 48-year-old widow from Kabul, borrowed 5,000 afghanis from Parwaz three months ago. "I started a female-run bakery, and business is getting better day by day," she said. She now employs all six members of her family and plans to apply for another loan so she can build an additional bakery.

Zia Jan, an illiterate 36-year-old seamstress from Kabul, told the judges at the awards ceremony that "I was given 5,000 afghanis by Parwaz and I bought three sewing machines. Now I earn 6,000 afghanis a month."

Zia Jan said that she spends 4,000 afghanis a month on her business and household expenses and saves the rest. She added that she's able to solve the problem that many aspiring Afghan businesswomen face – childcare - with her husband's support.

"I am very pleased with my husband, because he helps me and looks after our children when I am working," she said.

Sherzoy, with the ministry of commerce, said her agency plans to do more to promote women in business, "Women should be provided with better opportunities to start businesses in this country and abroad."

She said the ministry is working on a five-year plan to implement policies and programs for women entrepreneurs. The ministry has already established an Afghan Women's Business Association, and plans to build business centers throughout the provinces for women that will include training and workshops and to develop a marketing strategy for exporting products made by women.