Afghanistan has for decades had a brutal reputation among westerners for the way in which women are treated in their society. Yet, since the fall of the Taliban, life for many women has improved.
In 2001 an Afghan Ministry of Women’s Affairs was established, and just before Christmas its current minister, Dr Husn Banu Ghazanfar, visited London to discuss women’s issues with British ministers.
Dr Ghazanfar spoke with pride about the 37 per cent increase in the number of Afghan girls attending school since 2001.
Today, one in four Afghan teachers are women, and since 2001 there has also been a 25 per cent increase in the rate of women entering Afghanistan’s parliament.
News reports about women joining the Afghan National Security Forces, being trained by ISAF and playing an important role in counter-insurgency are becoming more commonplace.
Under the Taliban, women were not allowed to attend schools, nor were they allowed to leave their homes unaccompanied, let alone take up paid employment.
Yet after more than 30 years of war there are many widows in the villages and towns throughout the country who, if not allowed to contribute to their local economies, can only live as dependants on their often desperately poor extended families.
Happily this is, albeit slowly, beginning to change with the help of programmes such as the Female Engagement Teams (FETs) set up formally during Operation HERRICK 13 to help women into work.
Based in Lashkar Gah, Captain Rachel Marjoribanks is the local FET co-ordinator. There is one FET for each operational area.
Working closely with Stabilisation Advisers (StabAds) and the Military Stabilisation Support Teams, it is her job to develop the programme:
I go out to speak to families in the operational area, to explain the idea of helping women to set up co-operatives so they can earn a living,” she explained.
Captain Marjoribanks acknowledges that it is very early days and that she has to approach the subject cautiously:
A lot of it is about developing relationships,” she said.
The idea is to set up cells of co-operatives and workshops where women can use traditional skills such as embroidery to produce goods for sale and develop a market for what they produce.
There is also scope for the women to learn new skills under vocational training schemes.
Some of these skills, like motorcycle maintenance, are perhaps far from the traditional Afghan woman’s role but are proving to be popular:
I’m keeping it simple at the moment. I am concentrating on telling them how they can develop what they are already doing in their households, turn it into a cottage industry, and by working together they can make some money,” explained Captain Marjoribanks.
She adds that in what is seen by the West as a prescriptively male-dominated society, the programme is going down remarkably well with the men folk:
I spoke to an elder in a village near Lashkar Gah recently and he said that he saw it as his community’s responsibility to help women. He was very keen on the overall idea.
According to Captain Marjoribanks this is a typical reaction. The elders are keen to get the women in their community contributing and become full members of society:
We’re not out of the woods yet,” she said, “but it’s a long term project and it’s looking positive so far.
The FETs are not working in isolation as several Afghan Non-Governmental Organisations are also promoting the idea, and the concept is spreading by word of mouth through the many women’s shuras that are now taking place.
As well as funding from StabAd budgets, since 2004 the World Council of Credit Unions (WOCCU) has been providing micro-loans, in a way that is compliant with Islamic law, to men and women in Afghanistan who have no bank accounts but who, through WOCCU, have the opportunity to join a financial institution owned and controlled by its members.
Having established interest in the scheme, the FETs organise a place for women to meet to discuss things. The FETs have to have force protection and wherever possible this is comprised of female troops.
But only women from the FETs go inside the meeting places with helmets off:
To start with the conversation is all about our families, whether we have children. We drink a lot of tea. It takes time, but little by little we feed in information,” said Captain Marjoribanks.
I’d like to have a flagship project, but it is early days so I see our role as getting the ball rolling for future HERRICKs, and things are looking promising.
This article is taken from the April 2011 issue of Defence Focus - the magazine for everyone in Defence.