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New book honors Afghan women entrepreneurs

Afghanistan, March 7, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Julie Denesha for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Afghan women work tirelessly to improve the lives of their families. Forty-year-old Malika supports her five children with a diverse business that makes clothing, embroidery, doilles, handbags and silk scarves. She received a loan through a microfinance organization founded by Mercy Corps. Photo: Julie Denesha for Mercy Corps

International Women’s Day reminds me of the many courageous women I’ve had the pleasure of meeting during my last years at Mercy Corps. In all corners of the globe, women work tirelessly — sometimes against incredible odds — to build better, more prosperous and peaceful lives for their families.

Nowhere is this more true than in Afghanistan. A few months ago, I traveled to Kabul, and met a group of remarkable women who are the economic lifelines of their families, and sometimes their broader communities. These women are clients of a Mercy Corps-owned microfinance organization that provides Afghans — mostly women — with microloans to start and grow small businesses.

These women displayed great determination, business savvy and good old-fashioned chutzpah. But determined women aren’t a novelty in Afghanistan. A new book called The Dressmaker of Khair Khana tells the story of Kamela Sediqi, a young woman who became an unlikely entrepreneur and breadwinner for her family under the Taliban. At a time when it was illegal for women to work and study, and very difficult to even walk down the street, Kamela built a dressmaking business that employed not only herself and her siblings, but 100 women in her neighborhood.

Author Gayle Tzemach began researching female entrepreneurs in Afghanistan in late 2005, and was initially told she wouldn’t find a story. One government official explained to her, “Your interviews should only take about half a day” because there were no women entrepreneurs. One hour turned into weeks, months and then years as Gayle found and dug into Kamela’s story. Kamela is also close to Mercy Corps’ heart; she served as a member of our Afghanistan team after the Taliban fell, helping other women move forward and improve their lives.

Kamela is an inspiration, but my trip to Afghanistan showed that the country has many budding female entrepreneurs.

For example, I met Malika, age 40, who supports her five children with a diverse business that makes clothing, embroidery, doilles, handbags and — her most valued product — silk scarves. Since her first loan from Ariana Financial Services, her business has expanded and her income has nearly doubled. She now employs seven teenage girls from the neighborhood, teaching them the trade and providing income to help their families get by.

When I look at women like Malika, I see Kamela’s spirit at work. This International Women’s Day, I’d encourage you curl up with a good book — The Dressmaker of Khair Khana — and honor the women of Afghanistan.