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New Opportunities in a Fertile Land

Afghanistan, June 2, 2004

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    Mercy Corps' Agricultural Innovation Center in southern Afghanistan's Helmand Province is teaching local women valuable lessons about agriculture and food processing. Photo: Tim Stewart/Mercy Corps Photo:

In Helmand Province, opportunities for women are slim. Culturally-prescribed gender roles restrict their movement outside of their households and villages, limit their access to education and economic options and hinder their positive contributions to civil society at many levels.

Although currently limited, social and economic opportunities for women do exist in Lashkar Gah, Helmand’s provincial capital. Because Helmand is a fertile area with an economy based on crop and animal production, many of these opportunities are related to agriculture. Through agricultural initiatives that are culturally appropriate for women, Mercy Corps is expanding their options and, ultimately, strengthening their participation in civil society.

Mercy Corps began the “Women’s Vocational Agriculture Education and Civil Society Building Project” in January 2004 with funding from USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives through the International Organization for Migration. We work alongside the Ministry of Women’s Affairs through its provincial office, the Helmand Women’s Association (HWA), to improve women’s agricultural skills and increase public awareness about the benefits of women’s economic and social participation in civil society.

In April, fifteen women, accompanied by their male chaperones, attended a two-week training course at North West Frontier Province Agricultural University in Peshawar, Pakistan. In exchange for the training they received in food processing, mushroom production and poultry rearing, the women will share what they learned with other women in Lashkar Gah.

Mercy Corps is building an Agricultural Innovation Center (AIC), where women will be able to learn about agriculture and food processing. Its design mirrors a typical family compound, incorporating innovations such as rainwater harvesting and using waste water for irrigation. The aim is to demonstrate ways of maximizing production in cost-effective ways in a setting that is familiar. The training will cover the topics that Mercy Corps trainees studied in Peshawar as well as beekeeping. The AIC will be completed in July and, in the meantime, vegetable production training is taking place at Mercy Corps’ and HWA’s offices in Lashkar Gah. Other trainings and demonstrations will be arranged for small groups of women at home.

We also will offer training via radio. Approximately 200 women will be organized into radio listening groups. Programs that complement the training underway will be developed and recorded by Mercy Corps. Weekly programs as well as agriculture and food processing question-and-answer sessions and other pieces about opium production, child nutrition and civil society topics will be broadcast on the public network. After each broadcast, the radio listening groups will discuss topical issues.

In September, the project will conclude with a “Women in Agriculture” fair at the AIC. The end of this project, however, is just the beginning for women in agriculture in Helmand Province. Through other Mercy Corps projects, women have access to other training, including business training, and possibly credit to start a business.