How this farming project helps Afghan women grow financial independence

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HARI SREENIVASAN: Fifteen since the United States went into Afghanistan, the U.S. has spent an estimated $1.5 billion to develop women’s rights in the country. There’s also a new $300 million five-year program to continue to help women have a say in their society.

But, despite the money, the fact that only a quarter of parliamentarians are now women, and laws protecting them from violence, Afghan women still face significant challenges.

Special correspondent Jennifer Glasse reports from Kabul.

JENNIFER GLASSE: Kobra Dastgirzada is a successful Afghan businesswoman. The U.S.-funded program Promote has sent these women to learn from her. She’s sharing more than a decade’s experience running companies in Afghanistan.

Helped in part with U.S. funds over the years, her enterprises include making jams, pickles, baskets and dried soup packs. She remembers life under the Taliban, and says things have improved since 2001.

KOBRA DASTGIRZADA, Entrepreneur: In this 15 period, or years, it was a very good chance for women, because there was a good program. And every day, the new program come, especially about the business, about the society, about education. Everything did come. And the women get a lot of benefits from this program too. Right now, the women has a good state to the society.

JENNIFER GLASSE: But even with experience, it’s not easy. She can’t manufacture on this day because there’s no electricity, and this is Kabul. She knows life is much harder in business and other ways for women elsewhere in Afghanistan.

KOBRA DASTGIRZADA: Right now, in the province, it is a very big problem, because the women cannot go out of the home, because the Taliban has the control. You know that. Then maybe they kill them. And maybe, one day, they kill me too, because I work and have a lot of activity. If they come and get Kabul, the first person will be I. They kill me.

JENNIFER GLASSE: Kobra says she can’t worry about the Taliban’s recent military gains around the country. She wants to concentrate on her work.

Kobra has advantages many other Afghan women don’t, not just a supportive husband, but her factory is in her backyard, so she can work at home. And her shop is just in front of her house. Her small shop is just one outlet for her goods. She also sends them to markets. For that, she needs a man. Afghan society would frown on women selling in the bazaar.

That man makes three times the salary of her female Afghan employees. Kobra says that can’t be helped. She needs him. Even where women succeed, the culture of discrimination here finds its place.

KIM MOTLEY, Lawyer: A lot of people don’t realize that Afghanistan is a country where it’s been reported that over 85 percent of the women are victims of domestic violence. It’s a country where I understand that 72 percent of women are uneducated.

JENNIFER GLASSE: Kim Motley is a lawyer who takes on some of Afghanistan’s most desperate cases, like Sahar Gul, who was tortured and abused by her husband’s family. She testified against them and they were jailed, a rare victory here.

Motley’s newest client is Gul Meena, attacked with an axe by her brother, uncle and husband and left for dead.

KIM MOTLEY: This incident happened over three years ago. And it is deplorable that not one person in the Afghan government has bothered to talk to her about what happened. I mean, literally, there are three axe murderers on the loose in Afghanistan or Pakistan. They don’t know, but no one has bothered to sort of find out.

JENNIFER GLASSE: Gul Meena says she is still afraid of her attackers, but would like to see them punished and would be willing to testify.

GUL MEENA, Victim Of Ax Attack (through translator): I’m worried that, if I go to court, then the judge might put me in jail because I ran away.

JENNIFER GLASSE: Hundreds of women have been jailed for so-called moral crimes, like leaving their husbands or even being alone with a man. President Ghani released many.

Regardless of their cases, both Gul Meena and Sahar Gul want to leave Afghanistan. They feel there’s no future here for them.

Susan DeCamp is one of the stewards of the five-year, $300 million U.S.-funded Promote program for women. She says she knows women’s rights are tenuous here.

SUSAN DECAMP, USAID: It’s a challenge, and it’s always been a challenge, and it’s going to continue to be a challenge for quite a while.

What we hope to do is get enough women out there working together in a positive way, so that they can have their own voice. It’s not so much about us deciding what they want and need, but about them being in a position to influence what they want and what they need.

JENNIFER GLASSE: On a farm on the outskirts of Kabul, that’s what Sophia Wilcox is doing teaching, women to stand on their own.

She’s taken a somewhat tough-love approach with her farming training programs. Anyone who wants to participate has to pay dues to be part of the collective. Since she arrived in 2009, Wilcox has avoided creating what she calls NGO disease, dependency on international aid.

SOPHIA WILCOX, Women’s Agricultural Extension Program: I don’t give them anything because we need to teach them to be independent and use what they have, become creative in their use of their own resources to build themselves up.

JENNIFER GLASSE: And it’s working. One of the gardeners has a daughter who’s a hospital worker, so they devised these drip feeding systems. Women are motivated, with good reason.

SOPHIA WILCOX: There’s decisions that they’re not allowed to make. And if they’re given a slight bit of income, they can make those decisions, children going to school, whether or not they go to school, if we buy medicine, if we don’t buy medicine. Those types of decisions are not given to women freely. And when they have their own income, they are able to make those decisions.

JENNIFER GLASSE: The Afghan women started managing this farm on their own last October. So far, each of the 15 workers has made about $100 a month. Considering a taxi driver in Kabul makes about $150 a month, it’s good money, more than they have ever made in their lives. A lump sum is expected at the end of the summer harvest. Next year, they expect to earn more.

Farm manager Lailajan Yousafzai needs no help with marketing. She knows her products inside out. She’s proud to support the 15 women farmers here, and to give some income to 25 more. They can’t leave their homes, so they grow products in their own gardens.

LAILAJAN YOUSAFZAI, Farm Manager (through translator): One woman sent her son to university. She can pay for his transport and she can pay for his books. We all use the money for our families.

JENNIFER GLASSE: Four years ago, this was all dirt and weeds. But as often happens here, success brings problems. Although this project paid for the local water pump and its repair, the man who has the key demands money to supply water. For Sophia, it’s a dilemma.

SOPHIA WILCOX: It’s a problem for me, because I’m working for essentially the U.S. taxpayer, and we can’t pay bribes, and — but bribes are really common. And so it’s a frustration, and it’s everywhere. It’s rampant. You can’t get anything done, really.

JENNIFER GLASSE: A rival project nearby, funded by the Afghan government, is failing. Its politically connected manager is threatening to take the women’s land away. The women here say they will fight that to stay, that the money they’re making is changing their lives.

But like so many things here, as women, they ultimately may not have a choice.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Jennifer Glasse in Kabul.

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