Stability providing new opportunities for Afghan women
Supporting fledgling business women in Afghanistan is more than just a passion for business studies graduate Nasria, who moved back to Kabul from Pakistan six years ago. It is her life.
Each day, as one of 15 employees in the Goldman Sachs “10,000 Women” initiative, she teaches some of Afghanistan’s most underserved women the rudimentary lessons to business success. Something she believes would not have been possible ten years ago.
“It’s my way of contributing to a better future for Afghanistan,” says Nasria, 24. “What could be better than teaching these Afghan women skills or knowledge that I have?”
Since returning to a more stable Kabul from Quetta, Pakistan, at the age of 18, Nasria enrolled at the American University of Afghanistan to complete her bachelor’s degree in business administration. “Afghanistan has changed tremendously in the last 10 years,” she says. “Whether it’s infrastructure, economy, educational institutions or media, it has changed for the better.”
“We wouldn’t have had such an excellent educational institution as the American University of Afghanistan in the time of the Taliban,” she adds. “Nor would women ever have had the chance to come out of their homes and work, bringing a source of income to the family.”
Helping Afghan women
Helping Afghan women to overcome some of the enormous problems they face has been part of Pashtun’s life ever since she became an active member of the university women’s club and self-help group. It is experience gained from these groups that she called upon when she was offered a job by Tamarra Myatt, senior director of the Goldman Sachs “10,000 Women” initiative.
“I have talked to many women and when they tell their stories, one can hardly stop their tears,” Nasria says. “Each one of them had gone through bad times; some of them were working in the time of the Taliban which was a big threat for them. But their courage and bravery inspires me and motivates me to do more for these people and my country.”
“If they could do so much under the Taliban, we can, and we must, do a lot more today under much better living conditions,” she says.
NATO’s International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) is the first NATO operation to include gender advisors. They advise commanders and forces on how best to approach, protect and integrate women into the process of developing and stabilising Afghanistan.
As the environment has become more stable in Afghanistan, more initiatives, some private, have been set up to aid the recovery of society and businesses.
Developing initiatives for a better future
For Myatt, this means particularly focusing on developing a microfinancing program for women lacking the political clout, wealth or knowledge to set up a business for themselves.
“Developing businesses is a strategy to achieving peace, avoiding terrorism and avoiding the lack of economic opportunity,” says Myatt. “It is not the answer, but it is a piece in the puzzle.”
The programme has so far helped 180 women, with one graduate winning Fortune’s most powerful women awards for 2010. Many others have also been recognised. This has built an effective and prestigious alumni network through which new recruits are identified.
“A lot of women own businesses but won’t go public with them,” says Myatt, “but these women have access to networks that we cannot rival…Kabul has 5 million people, 49,000 cats, 39,000 dogs and 22 crazy people. We need a better strategy to help these people, and that is education. We should be integrating more than segregating.”
Changing perceptions of Afghans
Pashtun was one of over 20 students who took part in NATO’s Afghan student forum in Istanbul in September 2010. At the annual forum, which brings together students from various member nations and Afghanistan to share insights and experience, she says she found that many misconceptions were held by, and about, Afghans. Misconceptions and stereotypes she has sought to change.
“We Afghans have a certain expectation from NATO, but what we forget is that what do the local people of a NATO country think about the involvement of NATO in Afghanistan?” she explains.
She specifically remembers a Greek student coming up to her at the Istanbul forum to say that her stereotype of Afghans was proved completely wrong by Pashtun. The “real Afghanistan” is not often understood, she explains, adding that the country is a “melting pot” for culture due to the mix of influences brought back by returnees.
“As a result you see a new culture especially in the young people,” she says. “However, most of these changes are limited to urban centres. If we continue with such limited and unbalanced changes, it could bring more problems of internal segregation in the future.”
Securing Afghanistan’s future will take more than a continuous flow of help, Pashtun adds. “Afghans need to be helped, but the best way is to train these Afghan women to be able to help themselves. This is the key to sustainability.”