European Union External Action

Small steps ahead for Afghan women’s economic empowerment

25/10/2018 - 18:38
Interviews

Afghan women still have a far way to go to catch up as entrepreneurs. Women’s role remains limited in the private sector, as the difficulties faced by women-owned businesses are considerable. The EU promotes women entrepreneurs by supporting Afghan women to realize their business ideas and expand existing SMEs.

Despite some progress, the barriers faced by women-owned businesses in Afghanistan are still numerous; lack of access to finance, poor infrastructure and lack of business networks. Apart from the challenges of operating a business in a conflict country, women entrepreneurs also encounter significant social and cultural bias.

- Women are not expected to have an income or do any business, says Roya Saqib, Programme Director at the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, Afghanistan.

- As women are not obliged to provide for the family and earn an income, it means that women are not only prevented from doing so, but expected to be inactive!

The limitations that women entrepreneurs experience are not attributable directly to legislation, which is largely gender-neutral. Women are can acquire the documents necessary for registering businesses, so difficulties are more due to social norms. Besides entrenched cultural prejudice, in particular in the rural provinces, women lack role models in the private sector.

- It is customs and traditions that do not allow women to be active in the economy. Running a business is unimaginable for some women in this country, says Roya Saqib with the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs.

- It is embedded in the culture that women should not do business.

The working environment is a challenge in a country where violence against women is a real threat.

- There is a lack of security even for educated women. Women have to be accompanied to go to the market and they may not even want to be seen by men.

In rural areas, women lack access to markets and trading place and are not commonly seen as holders of local businesses.

- Women should not only be buyers, but also sellers. But local custom may not allow women to set up businesses. Or women may not be allowed to work for their families, says Roya Saqib from Afghanistan’s Ministry for Labour and Social Affairs.

The insecurity that follows from the flaring-up of violence and decades of armed conflict has left women without means to earn an income.

- Business registration should not be a problem and opening a bank account is possible. However, the social barriers are major problems for women.

Corruption and poverty play a big part in the lack of opportunities for women in an entrepreneurial role. Access to funding is hampered by the difficulty of taking out a loan. Most problems of doing business in the country are common to men and women, but some issues are more pronounced in the case of women.

- Women may not be able to provide the required documentation for a loan, so there should be policies in place to address that, explains Roya Saqib, Programme Director at the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, Afghanistan.

In particular Afghan carpets and other high-quality textiles and handicraft carry potential for international markets.

- Women don’t even have access to international buyers. They may not have the language or the ease to communicate.

There is an urgent need to develop the Afghan private sector in itself. Positive discrimination may be needed to have more women join businesses or acquire property. The Afghan women’s chamber of commerce has been in place for two years.

- Violations of women’s rights have to be taken seriously. Already that would send a strong signal, says Roya Saqib.

- We have to increase women’s agency in the economy! There is no single mechanism by the government, but a national empowerment programme.

The EU does not provide direct grants to women entrepreneurs but support businesses through other programmes, such as expanding women-led SMEs. Some of the private sector support programmes promoting women’s entrepreneurship are run separately by the non-governmental sector. Future grant schemes that aim at empowering women are under consideration.

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