Program turning Afghan women into entrepreneurs

POLITICS - There were certainly obstacles to bringing the entrepreneurial spirit to women in Afghanistan. The first was just convincing men of the country that it was possible.

"Some of them would say, ‘No, we don't want anyone to work with our women. The project should be more men,' things like that," said Catherine Sobrevega, Afghanistan country manager for Mennonite Economic Development Associates.

Sobrevega, who is heading up a four-year effort to integrate women into horticultural markets in Afghanistan, visited Bluffton University on Tuesday to talk to students. Her organization, working with the Afghan Women Business Council, is the only program in Afghanistan completely geared toward women.

Begun in April 2007, the first year of the project had 750 women growing and selling tomatoes, carrots, onions, cucumbers and potatoes. The number jumped to 1,500 this year, encompassing six villages.

Getting into villages was sometimes tricky, Sobrevega said. The organization would first talk to the male elders. Some who were not interested at first, changed their minds when seeing the results. Women are making up to $350, far more than the country's median income.

"Because they saw what we did in other villages, in the second year, they are the ones coming back to us saying, ‘You can include our women.'" she said.

The organization provides a link for the women, Sobrevega said, not any handouts. It co-developed a loan fund and provides information about how to and where to sell their vegetables. Specifically, women are reminded that their product is worthy of high-end markets.

Women grow their vegetables in small plots near their homes. In rural villages, women are often confined to the home, Sobrevega said, although once seeing how well the women were doing with their gardens, men began inviting their wives to plant in the fields.

Another obstacle involved most women not being allowed to leave their village, inhibiting selling their products. The solution was to hire older women and widows, who are permitted to leave, to sell for them.

The program is beginning to spur other economic development, Sobrevega said. Some women have purchased cows and other animals. Most important, she said, the women are being empowered.

"When you do training for men, usually they don't pass this onto the women," she said. "If you provide something for the women, they will go home to the house, discuss this with the husbands and sons."

And their daughters.

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