Case study

Education against all odds: job skills open up new worlds in Helmand

From tending fields to tailoring - how UK aid and Mercy Corps are investing in Afghanistan's youth

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In pictures: audio-slideshow from Mercy Corps showing how women are benefiting from vocational training in Helmand. Credit: Toni Greaves/Mercy Corps

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Shamsiya is 1 of the brave students who face threats and uncertainty to work toward a better future for women in Afghanistan. She’s learning how to use computers, with the support of her family, Mercy Corps and UK aid.

She’s one of more than 900 women in Helmand who have enrolled on vocational training courses over the last year, to learn English, computer skills, tailoring, embroidery and calligraphy.

Conflict and cultural repression in Afghanistan have denied women education, careers, safety and equal rights for decades. But things are changing for the better, despite the challenges that remain.

“My parents encouraged me to attend school and study further”, says Shamiya.

“Every member of society should have knowledge. Through knowledge we can solve all our problems.” 

While Shamsiya is learning how to use a computer, in a different classroom nearby, Agha Wali carefully lines up another piece of fabric in his sewing machine and gets to work - this piece, like the last, will be made into children’s clothes.

“I used to be a farmer, but this is a difficult profession and it does not provide enough money to provide medicines and education for my family”, he says.

“There are no tailoring shops in my community and this training will be a good opportunity for me to start a business.”

Thousands of young people like Shamsiya and Agha are benefiting from UK-funded programme which is being run by the international charity Mercy Corps. The project is training young men and women in Helmand in vocational skills, which will help them get jobs, start businesses and support their families.

Agha, from a village just outside Helmand’s commercial capital Lashkar Gah, has been receiving the training for just over a month. He is already planning to open a small shop, and has been investigating sourcing materials.

He plans to combine tailoring work with farming, but eventually hopes to hire labourers with the profits from his business to concentrate full-time on his shop.

Elsewhere Ahmad Shah is busy tinkering under the bonnet of a tractor engine. The farm labourer is just weeks into his course, but is already repairing tractors from the surrounding villages.

He said: “Tractor repair is much more lucrative than farming so this is a much better option for me.

“I want to earn money so that in future, my children can go to school and complete their education in a way that I was not able to do.”

These men, and many thousands like them, represent the future for Helmand, and indeed for Afghanistan.

More 30 years of war and conflict have left whole generations in Afghanistan without the skills to provide a living for themselves and their families.

Providing useful, vocational training for people in Helmand will give people greater control of their lives and those of their families and given them a greater stake in the future of Afghanistan.

INVESTing in training with Mercy Corps

The INVEST programme of technical and vocational training is run through the non-government organisation Mercy Corps.

It has now trained over 8,000 young people over the last year and will train another 8,000 over the coming 18 months. It provides centres across seven districts of Helmand, where they can receive practical training, as well as equipment, materials, teachers, and help to help them find jobs or start a business when they are finished their course.

The start of the course has already provided some interesting findings.

When the course was originally envisaged, it was anticipated that construction would be one of the most popular subjects.

However, the most popular subjects so far have proved to be computing, sewing and embroidery, mobile phone repair and pre- university entrance exam coaching.

Most of the students are aged around 15-20 years old - however there are quite a few who are older and simply want to learn new skills.

Unlike some other development programmes elsewhere in the world, this one does not give students any financial incentives to attend, ensuring that running costs are as low as possible.

Despite no advertising, during the last period of registration, over 9,000 students turned up to register, way above the original expectation of 2,000. Capacity has had to be more than doubled.

Zaker Khodadad, one of four brothers, is another example of those being helped by the new programme. He is learning IT skills and hopes ultimately to work for a mobile phone company. It would mean he could leave behind his job in the bazaar and earn more money for his family.

Supporting economic growth is one of three key priorities for DFID’s programme in Afghanistan - and it is people like Zaker, Agha and Ahmad, and their children, who will directly benefit from this.

Published 2 May 2012