As foreigners leave Helmand, women producing handicrafts say skills will be lost unless new markets can be found.
Aisha, 40, once made good money selling her beaded handicrafts at displays and events run by international organisations in the Helmand province of southern Afghanistan.
“I would take my products to the exhibitions,” she recalled. “Domestic and foreign visitors would come and buy gifts for their friends and families. Our work was very good.
“Now, even if a [show] is arranged, no foreigners come, because most organisations have left Helmand. Only ordinary people come to the exhibitions, but they don’t buy anything."
Aisha says the Afghan government, the women’s affairs ministry in particular, have done nothing to help local craftswomen create new markets.
“The department for women’s affairs should create a specific business zone for craftswomen where they can sell their products,” she said. “No one cares about us here.”
Women working in the handicraft industry in Helmand say that the departure of international NGOs ahead of this year’s withdrawal of the NATO-led troop contingent means that a valuable source of income is now gone.
Hundreds of women in Helmand have learned skills including carpet-weaving, beading, sewing, shoemaking, and how to preserve pickles, with help from the Provincial Reconstruction Teams, USAID and other organisations.
But many say that these skills will be lost if women cannot use them to make a living.
Fatima, chair of the Women's Handicrafts Association in Helmand, said the biggest problem facing producers was how to market their goods.
“Although I have talked to many organisations about this, no one has helped,” she said, explaining that without consistent support and opportunities to sell their goods, women would soon forget the skills they had been taught and entire programmes would go to waste.
Women face particular difficulties making a living in deeply conservative Afghanistan. Although more opportunities have opened up for female entrepreneurs since the fall of the Taleban in 2001, cultural restrictions mean they cannot simply set up an independent factory or shop selling their products.
In Helmand, women insist they need a specific site where they can trade, similar to Kabul’s Bagh e-Zanana, a women-only park where vocational courses are offered and market stalls are available.
Zarghuna, a resident of Lashkar Gah, the main town in the province, said she had learned how to tailor traditional Kandahari clothing through programmes offered by the local branch of the women’s affairs ministry.
But she has gained nothing from her efforts, since she has no way of selling her work. Now, she stays at home and her economic situation has not improved.
“We cannot open a shop wherever we want, like men,” she explained. “It is the government’s duty to create a specific market for women, where they can safely do business and sell their products.”
Despite trying for nearly a month, IWPR was unable to obtain an interview with the regional head of women’s affairs in Helmand, Jamila Niazi.
However, the deputy minister of women’s affairs, Fauzia Habibi, told IWPR that her office could take credit for all the training schemes for women in Helmand. The ministry had created markets for women in many provinces.
“Whenever a problem about women is discussed, everyone thinks that it has to do with the women’s affairs ministry. That isn’t the case. Other ministries are involved in many areas as well. For instance, the ministry of labour and social affairs is responsible for finding markets and jobs for women.
“We have asked for land from the governor of Helmand to build a park for women, where women can sell their products, but the governor has not provided us with such a place yet.”
Government officials in Helmand denies this allegation.
“The ministry and [Helmand] department for women’s affairs haven’t asked us for anything. Their claim is baseless,” said Omar Zowak, spokesman for Helmand governor Mohammad Naim.
He said that the provincial administration wanted to promote women’s handicrafts and that a market was being built in the Shahid Ghaltan area of Lashkar Gah, although it was not yet complete.
According to Mohammad Nader Watanwal, the provincial branch head of the labour and social affairs ministry, “We have helped a lot with building the market, which is under construction.”
Watanwal said that his office had made great efforts to invest in female employment, but pointed out that a lack of jobs was a problem common to the whole of Afghanistan.
“We are working with both men and women to find ways to put an end to unemployment,” he said.
A member of Helmand’s provincial council, Razia Baluch, agreed that women faced similar problems in most provinces.
However, the departure of many aid organisations and the lack of security, as well as conservative local traditions and a lack of interest among officials, had made the situation in Helmand particularly acute.
“Not only are craftswomen in a bad state in Helmand, other women suffer are in a worse situation. If no attention is paid to these women’s circumstances, they may turn to drugs or begging and their situation will become intolerable,” she said. “The [provincial] women’s affairs ministry has not taken the necessary action, either. Since it hasn’t managed to reduce the level of violence against women, how can it work to improve their economic situation?”
Baluch said she had spoken to numerous government agencies about the problems facing craftswomen, but had received no assurances of help.
The private sector in Helmand has done better at selling crafts made by women, and local entrepreneurs say people need to help themselves.
Ahmad Shah Jamal has a workshop selling women’s handicrafts in Lashkar Gah, employing 25 women to sew, embroider and bead traditional Kandahari clothes.
“If we wait for the government and foreigners to help, we will lose everything,” he said. “I keep telling these women to make an effort themselves, because the women’s affairs department and other organisations that are supposed to be helping them just engage in business in their name. They put all the money they earn in their pockets and don’t spend it on you.”
“Twenty-five women work for me here, but no one from the women's affairs department has come here to find out what these women do or what it could do for them,” he said.
Jamal said that he currently sold goods to shopkeepers in Helmand, but was considering expanding sales to organisations and shops in Kabul, too.
Lal Mohammad Darwesh, a member of the National Investors’ Union in Helmand, also blamed the government for failing to mobilise its resources effectively. His local branch had tried to support women’s craft projects, albeit with limited success.
“We have worked on this in the past,” he said. “It’s had some results, but the government needs to help us as well.”