Unstoppable Afghan Women

From WFP - Gender News No. 21
The crowded northern city of Mazar-I-Sharif is hot and dusty during the summer months. Most of the people go on foot, especially the women. Alone, in small groups, or dragging a group of children behind them, the white, blue and violet-hued shapes moving steadily beneath their burquas are an unremarkable sight.

Mazar-I-Sharif is one of the poorest urban centers in Afghanistan. At least seven percent of its households are headed by women, children, disabled or elderly people who are unable to earn enough income to buy sufficient food. Another 20 to 40 percent are poor households that depend on a single male member who is also unable to earn enough to feed the family. In response to this critical need, WFP established bakeries to provide highly-subsidized bread to vulnerable households.

Pippa Bradford, WFP suboffice head in Mazar, realized that, to identify the most needy beneficiaries, a house-to-house survey of the entire city was needed. Faced with this daunting task, she negotiated with Taliban authorities in order to hire 600 female surveyors for the job. Her argument was simple: only women can visit households of non-family members and speak to the female members of the family, men cannot. After weeks of discussions approval was finally granted for the women to work on a temporary basis.

Forbidden from travelling in taxis without a close male relative as escort, the women (unemployed teachers, widows and displaced women) went on foot. Eight hours a day for five days a week they moved in groups of four, up and down every street in Mazar. For two months the women visited each one of the 50,000 households - 20,000 more than expected. Their reward was 7 kg of WFP wheat for each day worked and, perhaps most importantly, personal fulfillment and increased self-esteem.

The work of these women is long since finished. The 80 seasonal bakeries in Mazar opened for 80,000 beneficiaries in November - and still we talk about them. Their perseverance, dedication and hard work stand out as a significant achievement and their work is a model of what is possible when dedicated staff members and Afghan women join forces to get a job done.

Denise Brown, WFP Afghanistan

Overcoming the Hurdles

Under the Taliban's rules, Afghan women cannot travel without a mahram - a male companion, usually her husband, father or brother. Seven Afghan women who work in WFP Afghanistan sub-offices had to overcome this hurdle in order to attend a workshop in Islamabad last January. They did not want to miss the opportunity to learn and exchange ideas with their colleagues so they all went . . . accompanied by their mahrams.

The workshop participants developed a common understanding of monitoring and its contribution to effective project management. They gained a practical understanding of the concepts and tools for gender-sensitive monitoring, and developed action plans.

Ofelia P. Bornay, Advisor, Gender Focal Point, WFP Afghanistan

'Large Strides' for Afghan Women

Three years after the the Taliban took control of most of Afghanistan, relief and development experts say months of quiet negotiation with Taliban leaders are beginning to dent the prohibitions. WFP, headed by Catherine Bertini, "has made large strides in bringing women into the work force in Afghanistan . . . WFP is pushing the right agenda in an intelligent way - with a lot of results," said Erick de Mul, coordinator of the UN relief program for Afghanistan.

In Jalalabad, an eastern Afghan city near Pakistan, the closing of smugglers' routes that brought in subsidized Pakistani wheat created a food crisis recently. WFP, with access to donated wheat, decided to open bakeries, but first it was necessary to make a survey of households. WFP insisted on having 50% male and 50% female surveyors; otherwise, there would be no bakery project. For about two weeks the Taliban leaders said, "No, it can be done by men; there is no need for women." They finally came around and said, "That's fine."

As reported in the New York Times, January 23, 2000