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A ‘window of hope’ for the women of Afghanistan: business training to address missing jobs

A room of women in head coverings and masks, working on sewing machines.

Alia* is a tailoring Intern at the Afghan Women's Vocational Training Center run by CARE in the Bagrami district of Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 30, 2023. Photo: Elise Blanchard/CARE

Alia* is a tailoring Intern at the Afghan Women's Vocational Training Center run by CARE in the Bagrami district of Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 30, 2023. Photo: Elise Blanchard/CARE

In a country where women are not allowed to hold most jobs, or even travel outside their homes without their husbands or other male escorts, what options do they have for livelihoods or survival?

Fatima*, a mother of six, has worked within these stifling limitations to build her own business drafting Afghan traditional dresses. Fatima lives in a remote village, and unexpectedly found herself the sole supporter of her family when her husband left and remarried. Determined to make ends meet, she took a loan of 20,000 AFN (around $280) from a village savings group.

According to the local traditions accepted by the de facto authorities, women who are the sole breadwinners of their families or senior female citizen This allows women like Fatima to run businesses independently, in her case renting a shop in the Kabul market to sell her crafts. Not only did the shop give her financial independence, but it also offered a platform for other women to sell their products.

“Each product we sell carries a story of perseverance and hope,” she says.

Working with strict limitations

In Afghanistan, restrictive policies on women’s employment have left only 16.5 percent of women with jobs. The change in power deteriorated the situation, with women being barred from entire sectors of employment, with further limits to their mobility.

On top of these limitations, the fear of arbitrary arrest and deeply ingrained cultural barriers pose significant challenges for women seeking employment.

In 2022, women’s employment dropped by 25 percent, compared to a decline of only seven percent for men. Youth employment also plummeted by 25 percent, with educational restrictions on girls further exacerbating the crisis. This gender disparity in economic participation costs an estimated $1 billion, or five percent of the country’s GDP, worsening poverty and humanitarian crises.

Despite authorities placing restrictions on most jobs, barring girls from secondary and higher education and limiting their movement, home-based businesses and entrepreneurship offer a viable solution for many women, allowing for economic empowerment despite gender-based oppression.

Close-up on the hands of two women preparing food on a table.
Women prepare aushaks, traditional Afghan dumplings, at the Afghan Women’s Vocational Training Center, run by CARE. Photo: Elise Blanchard/CARE

This culturally and socially acceptable approach allows women to participate in income generation activities and run their own businesses, operating within a legal framework that grants them equal rights as men.

An enterprise takes flight

Like Fatima, Gul is also the sole income producer for her family.

“My husband, who was a governmental employee and the only breadwinner of the family, lost his job after the regime change,” says Gul, a 40-year-old mother of nine.

Four women wearing head coverings and masks sit on the floor and work with their hands.
Gul and her family craft kites at home to generate income, using a loan secured from CARE. Photo: CARE

Faced with uncertainty, she turned to the village savings group, securing a loan of 7,000 AFN ($98) to start her own business making kites.

Gul started small, making 10,000 kites that earned her 14,000 AFN ($196). Her success grew quickly, and her profits soared to 100,000 AFN ($1,404). What began as a necessity evolved into a thriving family enterprise.

“My daughters, who can’t go to school anymore due to the girls’ education ban, now help me with the business,” she says. “Even my sons and husband are part of it.”

Essential skills

Gul and Fatima are just two of the thousands of Afghan women benefiting from CARE’s Women Empowerment Program. This program provides essential skills in basic financial management, marketing, business development and financial support, enabling women to overcome employment barriers and generate income from their homes.

At the Afghan Women’s Vocational Training Center in Kabul, CARE offers courses in sewing, handicrafts, and other trades. Shireen, a program participant, is learning skills in food processing.

A group of women in head coverings and masks gather around a table, preparing food in bowls and on plates.
Women prepare aushaks, traditional Afghan dumplings. Credit: Elise Blanchard/CARE

At the Center, women learn to make profitable foods like chutneys, baked goods, and fast foods. They spend four months here, learning the basics in a classroom setting followed by workshops in a kitchen environment. This program equips them with the skills to start their own food businesses.

“The women here with me all face economic problems,” Shireen says. “They travel here from far away and most women do not even come by [vehicle], instead, they must come here by foot to learn.”

The 36-year-old mother of three hopes to open a women’s restaurant once the courses are complete.

“If I can afford it, I will try to open something where I can work [with] other women,” Shireen says. “A place where women can work and get paid, this is my plan.”


Medium portrait of a woman in mask, head scarf, and purple clothing, looking at the camera.
Shireen is a food processing intern at the Afghan Women’s Vocational Center, run by CARE. Photo: Elise Blanchard/CARE

In the same building, another group of women learn tailoring, including hand embroidery and sewing. Like the food processing program, these women start with classroom courses followed by hands-on workshops using sewing machines. Alia is one of them.

“Our work process starts with hand embroidery… now we have reached scissors work,” Alia says. “When the teacher comes, she first sees our booklets, checks our homework, and then we start our lessons. We make clothes here. Anyone who wants to make clothes comes to us and we make clothes for them. We get contracts to make clothes from shops as well.”


Portrait of a woman with a head covering and mask at a sewing machine looking directly at the camera. Other women are in the background.
Alia at the Afghan Women's Vocational Training Center in Kabul, run by CARE. Photo: Elise Blanchard/CARE

Underfunded potential

“Addressing the social and economic challenges in Afghanistan is far from simple, yet establishment of a women’s empowerment development program is a pivotal step in addressing the distinct needs and challenges faced by Afghan women,” says Reshma Azmi, Deputy Director of CARE Afghanistan.

“Currently, Afghanistan grapples with an underfunding crisis that significantly limits the scope and impact of such initiatives. Afghanistan’s 2024 Humanitarian Response Plan remains only 17 percent funded, starkly highlighting the resource gap.

“With increased funding, programs like these could not only expand their reach but also significantly scale up their operations to provide more comprehensive support.”

“By closing this funding gap and increasing investment, programs designed to empower women can be significantly expanded and scaled up. With this help, Afghan women can become more independent and take charge of their own future.”

CARE Afghanistan and partners are delivering women empowerment programs for over 6,000 Afghan women and 80 women-led small- and medium-sized enterprises, providing essential skills and financial support to foster entrepreneurship and earn income from what they do.

Business clicking, but educations deferred

Supported by CARE program with advanced machinery, Fatima has the potential to expand her business and create more employment opportunities for other women.

Reflecting on her entrepreneurial journey, Fatima says: “CARE’s support opened a window of hope for me. Establishing my shop and expanding the business meant I could provide for my family and help other women too.”

Fatima successfully runs her business. Her sons are able to attend school thanks to her. However, despite her daughters finding ways to contribute to the family income and developing their entrepreneurial skills, their educational opportunities remain limited. Their dream of completing school and pursuing a university education remains unfulfilled.

*All participant names changed.

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