Sara, 38, was only 17 when she got married to a man who worked in a bakery. She carried with her the dream of learning how to read and write and the hope that her husband would allow her to participate in literacy classes.
But she discovered that her husband, like her father, believed that women had no use for social activities or personal development. A woman’s place is in the home; what does it matter what she learns?
A harsh reality
“I wanted to be a literate woman,” Sara explains, “I wanted to help my children with their homework. I had dreams of making money and having my own source of income to buy things for my children.”
She often spoke with her husband about allowing her to participate in literacy classes or some income generation courses conducted by organisations, but he remained unconvinced.
Sarah remembers when a few of their neighbours and relatives participated in sewing, embroidery and literacy classes. “I really wanted to take part too, but my husband didn’t allow me. He told me, ‘I work as much as I can to bring you food and provide everything that you need. Why would you want to go out to learn or to make money?’”
Sara’s husband, Sayed, had a monthly income of $250 USD - barely enough to feed the nine mouths in his family with not much left over to provide whatever school supplies his children needed.
“I remember one time, Jawad, my third [eldest], came to me and asked for money to enroll in an English class, but..."
“I remember one time, Jawad, my third [eldest], came to me and asked for money to enroll in an English class, but I didn’t have enough money at home,” says Sara. “I told him that ‘you are small still and when you get older you can work and with your money you can go to a English class.’ I really felt ashamed when I told [him that]. I didn’t know what I should do.”
Over three million Afghan children, roughly 50 per cent of children aged 5-14, live in poverty. In General, for most families who can afford sufficient school supplies for their children, the beginning of the school year is a time to think about how to prepare and inspire their children to learn, but for Sara it was a different story. “Each year I had two feelings. I was happy that my children were going to start a new year, but I also felt bad that I couldn’t buy new school uniforms and sufficient school supplies for them.” She would buy uniforms a few sizes too large so that they could be used the following year.
Sara’s children usually just took a piece of bread to school for a snack; eating fruit was a luxury for the family. The children ate whatever the other family members ate: breakfast was usually bread and sweet tea.
Ifs and buts
If Sara had a skill or a trade, or if her husband allowed her to participate in income generating activities or literacy classes she would have been able to help her children in their school assignments; she could buy them supplies and assist her husband with financial responsibilities. Basically, she would have the chance to live a more independent life like many women in other parts of the world. But for a long time these were only dreams.
In Badghis province, women like Sara are limited in their choices. Because they are expected to undertake domestic chores such as cooking, cleaning and child-care, they have very little time available outside of the home to develop interests or skills. Women are largely absent from community activities and seldom participate in decision-making.
Opportunities change minds
In an effort to strengthen communities in Badghis through building resilience and sustainable livelihoods, World Vision Afghanistan (WVA) introduced the “Australia Afghanistan Community Resilience Scheme (AACRS)” programme with funding from the Australian Government. The programme was implemented in partnership with Voice of Women Organisation (VWO), Afghanistan Conservation Corps Organisation (ACCO), the Department of Agriculture and Livestock (DAIL) and the Department of Rural Rehabilitation and Development (DRRD).
In order to specifically address women’s issues in Badghis communities, the project included a four-day Celebrating Family (CF) training to ensure that vulnerable groups, particularly woman-headed households, benefited equally from interventions.
Celebrating Families (CF) is based on five concepts: creating space for love, space for grace, finding seeds of goodness, discovering opportunities for forgiveness, and realising reasons for thanksgiving. It guides families towards greater fullness in life. The focus is on the whole family, not just the child or the parents. CF is an attempt to support the basic unit of society, which in many ways is also the basic unit of love and care.
The training, which is rolled out by shuras (community councils) and religious leaders, engages men to address gender equality in household expenditures and promotes shared responsibility at home by working with men to help them understand gender inequity and recognise its manifestations.
“As a part of the project, we have [made a point to] involve women in agriculture, marketing and literacy activities, [a difficult thing to do] in conservation context areas such as Badghis province. We decided to conduct the CF training to guide the participants, both men and women, toward fullness of life by reminding them about their responsibilities toward each other,” says Nezami, World Vision Community Organisation Specialist.
Luckily for Sara her village was selected as one of the communities where the AACRS project conducted the CF training and empowerment activities in resilience and sustainable livelihoods.
Through the village shura her husband was introduced to the programme. On the last day of the training Sayed made a decision. He says, “after the training, I thought, Sara can help me [with] daily expenses if she has a source of income.”
She was selected through the project to learn about cultivating different seeds and became a member of a women’s seed-saving group. Sayed started to look for a small piece of land where Sara could put her cultivation knowledge to use. Through support from project staff he found a plot where the income from the yield would be divided into three parts: two for Sara and her family and the other part for the land owner.
“First I thought he was kidding me, but later I understood that my dream of becoming a [person who can contribute] is coming true."
Sara was shocked when Sayed came home and asked if she wanted to start farming. “First I thought he was kidding me, but later I understood that my dream of becoming a [person who can contribute] is coming true. I will never forget the first night. I couldn’t sleep because I was so excited!”
This year Sara had the opportunity to use what she learned from the trainings. She sowed the improved seed from WVA and is cultivating potatoes and tomatoes on her land. She hopes to harvest the yield in coming months.
Moreover, to help Sara and other beneficiaries gain access to the market, the project has helped them create their own producer groups and has conducted literacy, numeracy, and basic business trainings.
“Well, with the first income I receive I want to enroll Jawad in English class. I will buy my children nutritious snacks to eat in school. For the next school year, I will buy new uniforms and school supplies for them,” she says proudly.