“Women have aspirations, they just don’t necessarily see the opportunity to pursue them,” says Julie Koehler, Director of Mercy Corps’ skills and trainings program in Afghanistan.
In Helmand Province, in southern Afghanistan, opportunities for women are especially rare.
A 10-year ban on female education, put in place by the Taliban in 1997, devastated the area’s education system. An entire generation of women was left illiterate and lacking the skills to teach the next generation — or earn a living for themselves.
And decades of severe gender inequality, conflict and political upheaval have resulted in few job and educational opportunities in the region, leaving families — notably women — in the area undereducated, impoverished and without opportunities to earn income.
That’s why, in March 2011, we worked with local communities to start INVEST (Introducing New Vocational Education and Skills Training), a program designed to increase practical skills education and employment opportunities for men and, for the first time, women.
It was groundbreaking because women are so marginalized in Helmand. In this area of the country in particular, it can take years — if not generations — to change the attitude toward the participation of women in the classroom, the economy and the community.
But, now three years after we started INVEST, there are five training centers for women and over 19,500 Afghans — 31 percent of them females — have graduated from INVEST courses with in-demand skills like computer literacy, English, carpentry and sewing.
Through three- or sixth-month classes, students receive social skills education, like how to work with others, technical training, mentoring and resources to find a job or start a business upon graduation.
“It is important for girls to have an education,” says Benafsha, a teacher at one of our INVEST schools. After graduating first in her INVEST class, she was asked to return as an instructor because of her dedication and enthusiasm. Benafsha believes that if women are given the skills they need to earn just a small amount of money for themselves, they can become leaders in their families and communities.
Gul Makhai, head instructor at the female vocational school in Lashkar Gah, has seen this transformation within her own family. “Now I am the one supporting my husband,” she says. “Five years ago in Helmand, that was not possible.”
Of course, any change like this is not sudden or easy. The education of girls remains controversial in Helmand, and women still face extraordinary restrictions in their daily lives. Women must get permission from a father, brother or husband to enroll in INVEST and they cannot leave their homes without a male chaperone. Any interaction with a man who is not a member of a woman's family — at the market, on the street, at school — is forbidden.
The extreme isolation, danger and lack of freedom that women face make attending school or working outside the home nearly impossible. But with INVEST, we are working to change that in culturally-appropriate ways that give women new opportunities while keeping them safe from potential backlash.
At INVEST’s women-only training centers, students may choose from handicraft, computer, English or college preparation courses. Since most women are not allowed to work in public, classes for skills that can be used in the home, like sewing and embroidery, have the largest enrollment. These skills are also considered the most acceptable kinds of work for women in Helmand, like Seema.
Seema started a home-based embroidery business one month after completing her vocational training in embroidery. She now earns enough to feed her family of five — and experiment with new designs in hopes of expanding her business.
She’s planning to increase her customer base by selling her products at the new all-women’s market, which we opened last summer with the blessing of the community.
The market is the first of its kind in the province. It’s located on the grounds of the flagship women’s training center to provide a safe, appropriate place for female INVEST graduates to buy and sell products they’ve made through the program. For most of them, it is their first opportunity to make money and interact with other women outside their homes.
In this region, the chance for women to earn their own income and build relationships outside of their family is a revolutionary advancement.
While Helmand remains an extremely complex and volatile place, we’re committed to helping communities there realize the power of education for every member of a family, regardless of gender. Through INVEST, entire families in Helmand are now earning more income, building stronger livelihoods and finding new opportunities — and we're looking to expand our reach to give more women throughout the country the same options.
Today on International Women’s Day, we’re proud to celebrate the brave women in Afghanistan — and around the world — who have broken down barriers and made great strides in the face of adversity.
The success of women in INVEST is a clear indication that although they lack resources, women in this region do not lack motivation. They are hungry for opportunities — and their communities are slowly starting to see what can be accomplished when they are granted them.