Economically empowering Afghan women to lead and bring about change

women empowerment

KABUL: Women make up 50 percent of the global population, 40 percent of the global workforce, and yet only own about 1 percent of the world’s wealth. Sixty-five percent of the world’s poor and two thirds of the world’s illiterate are women. While there has been a great deal of progress in the fight against poverty, particularly since the adoption of the U.S. Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2001, women remain disproportionately represented among the world’s poorest nations, and the gender gap continues to persist in economic, social, and political spheres.

When it comes to Afghan Women it is even worse. Currently Afghanistan and particularly Afghan women are at the lowest categories of global poverty indices with a Human Development Index (HDI) value of 0.346 and a Gender Development Index (GDI) value index of 0.300. This ranks Afghanistan as the fourth and third lowest in terms of standards of living and gender disparity.

In this article, we are highlighting the economic empowerment of Afghan women by providing an overview of the current situation of women in work force and women as entrepreneurs and some affirmative steps to ease their contribution in the economy and then, we will have a look at a number of constraints women face from cultural barriers to social norms; from limited financial access to the scarcity of property ownership; from lack of skills and capacity to lower productivity, and so forth.

Importance of women economic empowerment:

From the financial perspective, for a woman, having economic power not only impacts her decision-making, mobility and lowers their financial dependency but is also a very good source of supporting their families. Enabling them experience the outside world with paid employment can help raise women’s awareness. It also causes them to be respected, valued and take some responsibility in the family. Beyond that, having independent identity in the society as an active human being is counted as a very important factor to having psychological security.

The poverty in post conflict countries places women in poverty trap, which in turn causes poor health, violence, illiteracy, discrimination and low living standards. Afghanistan being one of the post conflict-countries is not an exception and, compared to men, women suffer more from the above-mentioned problems. A measure of disparity in women and men‘s economic status in Afghanistan is provided through the comparison of the female-male Gross Domestic Product (GDP) calculated based on the Purchasing Power Parity-adjusted per capita GDP. This was estimated at $402 for Afghan women and at $1,182 for men. Men are approximately 3 times economically in better position compared to women.

This means poor, uneducated and unhealthy mothers would raise their children with same characteristics. When a woman is economically secure, she can be educated; she can make decisions on her own and avoid being influenced by cultural and tribal norms and will stand for her rights. From the Economic perspective, labor and human capital is known as the key factors of production. In other words, targeting higher GDP rates requires higher proportion of productive and efficient labor force and human capital and women should have contribution to it. Higher participation of women in the economy means lower rates of unemployment and poverty reduction, higher living standards, welfare of the community and big steps towards development.

Development of Women’s human capital requires to enabling and encouraging women to pursue their higher education. There has been a significant increase in female primary education enrolment. However when it comes to higher education, due to a variety of reasons such as, economic constraints, security threads, marriages, women unfriendly environment, cultural sensitivity and so forth there are lower portions of women. As a consequence it creates a big gap of women experts in different sector and causes the low participation of women in leading positions, which increases inequalities.

Women in Afghanistan

1.      Women in labor force of Afghanistan:

Among the 28 Million populations of Afghanistan “49%” are female from which “24%” lives in Urban and the remaining “76%” are rural residents. From the 7.4 million economically active population of the nation only “34%” are female and about “75%” of the this population have been the categorized as unpaid family workers by the Central Statistics Organization of Afghanistan. Since Afghanistan is an agricultural based economy, rural women comprise “60%” of workforce as unpaid family workers in agriculture, horticulture, livestock raising, fuel wood collection, carpet weaving, embroidery, tailoring etc. On the contrary, in the urban areas, women’s contribution in manufacturing sector and different enterprises is noticeable and even more women than men are engaged in the agricultural and livestock industries. 21% of all permanent government employees were women in 2005 according to Word Bank.

2.      Women as entrepreneurs:

The Constitution of Afghanistan in Article Ten says: “The state shall encourage, protect as well as ensure the safety of capital investment and private enterprises in accordance with the provisions of the law and market economy”. Private sector is a young economic entity in Afghanistan and undoubtedly SMEs are given a very prominent role in economic growth of the country. Women already play a major role in Afghan industries, such as agriculture, jewellery, carpets, and embroidery, but receive limited benefits.

Afghanistan Investment Support Agency database shows that 1025 businesswomen and entrepreneurs are registered in Afghanistan. Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce and Industries says they have around 70 registered women owned businesses and a professional committee of businesswomen, which makes strategic decisions for the benefits of businesswomen. ACCI provide considerable services to support, promote and guide women entrepreneurs in the process of starting up new businesses and existing enterprises. Similarly, international chambers such as British Afghan Chamber of Commerce and Industry and Afghan American Chamber of Commerce give special benefits to women owned businesses, and supporting them to access markets outside Afghanistan. Peace Dividend Trust (PDT) reports: “out of the 7,000 Afghan companies in its national database women own only 242 of them. However, three to five new women-owned ventures join its registry each month. However in another report by USIP “Women’s programming emphasizing economic growth opportunities has supported 2,300 enterprises owned by women, helped establish 400 new businesses, and trained more than 5,000 women in local handicrafts, value chain, and fine arts businesses.

The main sectors of women-run businesses are in agriculture, handicrafts, manufacturing and service-oriented sector. Usual businesses for women are retail shops, Tailoring, provision stores, jewelry making, beauty parlors, tailoring, printing, shops and bakeries.

Some good Steps:

There have been several initiatives, some of them are as following:

  • The Afghan Women Business Federation (AWBF): Its aim is to enhance the private sector development and to create direct economic opportunities for women. (AWBF, 2007)
  • Afghan women business directory (Launched by ACCI and GTZ): The directory serves to enhance awareness and provide women with accessibility to business activities in Afghanistan, also contributing employment promotion for women.
  • Establishment of the International centre for Afghan women economic development: This centre will function as a headquarter to incubate female-led small and medium-sized businesses, provide business training to female entrepreneurs, funnel investment capital to promising women-run businesses, and provide women access to all the business and information technology (IT) assets at the American University of Afghanistan.
  • International financial assistance to promote gender equality: International Community has also contributed to gender mainstreaming programs; particularly economic empowerment of Afghan women. A very recent achievement is the 250$ USAID’s recent project on promoting equality for women in Afghanistan which is said as “the largest single investment USAID has ever made in its history in any part of the world “to support Afghan women after 2014, the transition year.


Although there have been some steps taken in increasing women participation in the economy but certainly they are not sufficient to overcome the challenges women face. Some of them are listed below:

  • Lack of job opportunities particularly for uneducated women: Since Afghanistan is a consumer country rather than a producing country which means there is an unemployment concern overall, but women severely suffer from it because of the lack of skills and capabilities.
  • Discouragement and Underestimation of women’s entrepreneurial activities: Since men are still known as the main breadwinners, men-based employment and business services are preferred in families. As well as due to discriminatory socio-cultural values and traditions, women’s abilities and performance is always underestimated and devalued which leads to reduction of the confidence and motivation needed to starting up and maintaining their enterprises.
  • Limited access to finance, business and technical services

Due to insufficient financial institutions and credit entities, women cannot fulfill their financial resources needed to run their businesses. Moreover, a successful business depends on effective project and financial management. Lack of expertise, technical assistance and market information is the other prevailing factor in promoting women as economic leaders.

  • Higher fertility rate: frequent pregnancy impairs women‘s ability to pursue education or engage in gainful economic opportunities. High fertility and youthful populations also place an enormous burden on women‘s time and health (NAPFWA)
  • Wage discrimination and limited authority on income: employed Women are usually placed in lower positions, limitation on overtime services and differences in wages, salaries and overtime reimbursements are the other concerns women have. Since women do not have much access to job training they have also limited opportunity for promotions. Moreover, a considerable proportion of women do not have control over their income. To clearly interpret the male family members are known as the owner of female generated income based on the cultural influences.


Access to Finance: In order to enhance women’s access to credit for consumption and production purposes, the establishment of new and strengthening of existing micro-credit mechanisms and micro-finance institutions should be undertaken to enhance women-lead businesses.

Encouraging women-run businesses through adopting and implementing some polices like:

  • Reforms in the business registration procedures to easing the process.
  • Providing timely Tax discounts for child women-run businesses, funding opportunities and promoting their products into national and international levels through provincial, national and international level. For instance, conducting exhibitions and introducing women created products.
  • Enlarging the business networks with the involvement of government, civil society regional and global community by enriching the performance of the existed women councils, CDCs (community development councils, business association, etc.).
  • Establishing vocational institutions to build and raise their capacities which will in meantime create job opportunities for the existed capable unemployed women
  • Encouragement contracts with businesswomen: Investment in women friendly businesses like: jewellery making, sports and fitness clubs, cafes, carpet veiling, knitting products, processing the agricultural product and food preservation industries that requires short-time training program for low level educated women in rural regions.
  • Practicing women heritage rights and economic autonomy: Awareness on women heritage rights and property rights to generating and having control over one‘s own income is one of the vital steps to economically empower women. Denial of property rights also limits women‘s access to capital, since banks normally require collateral for loans.

To conclude, the above-mentioned recommendations may reduce or eliminate the obstacles women face, give them economic, psychological and social empowerment, and increase their contribution in the economic development of Afghanistan.


Tania Aria
Afghan Chevening Scholar
University of Southampton- UK