While we at the Mercy Corps office in Kabul celebrate International Women’s Day, it remains a sad reality that much of the rest of Afghanistan is not. There have been notable improvements for women since the fall of the Taliban in 2001 — more girls have returned to school, more women enjoy the freedom to move outside their homes without fear — but gender inequality is still very present here.
Working as Mercy Corps’ HR/Staff Development Coordinator, I pay a lot of attention to the place of women at work in our country. The majority of working women in Afghanistan are in health and education positions because they are considered the most appropriate extensions of traditional gender roles. Some have managed to find jobs with the police, army, airlines, NGOs like Mercy Corps, and some make a living with their own handicrafts and small businesses.
But all women who try to have a career still face discrimination from outdated perceptions of women’s roles and abilities. Many still think that a woman going to work, or even simply going outside her home, is committing a sin. I want people to know that, in fact, Islam has a tradition of defining and protecting the rights of women, including the right to get an education and earn a living.
So while we still struggle for a more equal society, I’m proud to work for an organization that does so much to support women in Afghanistan.
Women like Shamila, who was married to a man 25 years older than her at just 13. After he died, she was left with two children and no way to earn a living because her husband, and her uncle before him, refused to let her go to school. One of her neighbors told her about a Mercy Corps training program, and she learned to tailor and started her own business. She saved her life — and her children’s lives — from poverty with our help.
Shamila’s story is not rare here. Alema also had no options to work outside the home and relied on her brother to provide for her five children after her husband became disabled. Thanks to Mercy Corps — who provided her with chickens, feed and the training to care for them — she’s now selling eggs to a local hotel and at the market, and helping other women in her village with her newfound skills.
It’s inspiring to see women given these opportunities to change their lives, even in a country full of obstacles. I hope everyday to see more women given the training, the support and the respect they deserve at work and at home — and we are seeing progress all around us. But especially on International Women’s Day, I hope we all take the time to look back on past struggles and accomplishments both, and look forward to men and women working shoulder by shoulder for the development of their countries and the betterment of our way of life.