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Women’s labour in agriculture and animal husbandry

 Afghan women have a great deal of involvement in agriculture in general and animal husbandry in particular. There are differences between villages, regions and provinces in terms of ethnicity and culture and these have their influence on the extent to which women are involved in agriculture. A broad mix of ethnicities exists in Afghanistan (Hazaras, Tajiks, Pashtuns, Uzbeks). Socio-economic and educational backgrounds also have implications for gender specific division of labour. Women’s role in livestock production is significant but often ‘less visible’ as most activities take place within the household’s compound where they usually take care of sick and new-born animals, provide feed and water, clean shelters, milk the cows and sheep and produce dairy products such as yoghurt, cheese, buttermilk and butter. But I have also observed women tending to livestock (cattle, sheep and goats) outside their homes and collecting roughage found locally to feed their livestock. In some parts of Afghanistan (e.g. Panjshir and Badakhshan) women go to the summer pastures up in the mountains to tend to the animals. Additionally the making of dung cakes (used as fuel for cooking) and the selling of dung cakes (at 1-3 Afs/piece depending on size) is managed by women. Men are mostly responsible for sheep rearing/herding; selling lambs, cutting wool and selling the dung.

Within some ethic groups in Afghanistan it is common for women and girls to take livestock out for grazing

Within some ethic groups in Afghanistan it is common for women and girls to take livestock out for grazing

 Income-generating activities in Afghanistan that have traditionally involved women’s participation and/or those where women’s participation is easily accepted include food processing (making pickles, drying fruits and vegetables); poultry keeping, beekeeping, vegetable gardening, baking and tailoring but also carpet making.

 Poultry production

 Village poultry production is traditionally women’s responsibility. Poultry provide an important source of animal protein; eggs are particularly important for the nutritional needs of children. Surplus eggs can be sold or bartered and provide an important source of income that is generally controlled by women. Poultry also provide manure for fertilizer that can be used on household garden plots generally managed by women. Village poultry require the lowest capital investment of any livestock species and production can begin in a relatively short period of time. In addition poultry production requires little time and can be done from within the home compound.



 Afghanistan has a long tradition of honey production. Domestic demand for honey is high, especially in northern Afghanistan. Beekeeping is one example of an activity that can be highly beneficial to women, providing a high-value, high demand product that also contributes towards household food security. Honey can be stored for long periods of time and provides a source of food together with bread during difficult times (e.g. winter when it is difficult to leave the house). Honeybee species indigenous to Afghanistan include Apis cerana and Apis dorsata. Apis mellifera, the European honeybee, has been imported to Afghanistan from Pakistan17. The European honeybee has much higher yield potential than the indigenous species but requires higher inputs and better management. Terres des Hommes (TDH) have implemented a beekeeping project for 22 women in Takhar province including a three-day training course and supplementing the women with the necessary materials such as bee boxes, jars and honey extractor machines. These women are earning from 3000 to 7000 AFN (US$ 60–140) every season. The majority of honey is sold to villagers coming to their house to buy the honey. Commercialisation of honey in Afghanistan is a problem however, because there is a lack of processing and packaging firms resulting in most of the raw honey produced in Afghanistan being exported to Pakistan where the honey is processed, labelled as made in Pakistan, and re-exported at a higher cost to Afghanistan

 Carpet making

 The majority of carpet production takes place in the Northern provinces, but there is also significant production in the western province of Herat and around the capital city, Kabul. Carpet weaving is a traditional income-earning occupation for both women and men in Afghanistan. Therefore, women can easily use this skill to support themselves and their families. Around 95% of production is carried out in the home on free-standing looms that are provided, along with the wool and carpet designs, by carpet dealers. During the Taliban regime (1996-2001), when women were forbidden to work, one of the only ways that they could still make a living was by weaving carpets at home. However, at present the carpet industry is facing several challenges that need to be addressed: a) lack of washing and cutting facilities and professional carpet designers. Afghan carpets are taken to Pakistan for processing; most carpets are sent to Pakistan to be trimmed and washed, because those processes can be done cheaper and better there. Then they are exported as Pakistani rather than Afghan items, b) Selling handmade Afghan carpets in large numbers inside the country is not really viable, given that average incomes are very low and the bottom end of the market is swamped with cheap machine-made carpets from Iran and Turkey. Furthermore the return on labour for carpet making is quite low considering the fact that it takes about 1-10 months for making a carpet and most people get paid only after having finished the carpet making it difficult for them to sustain themselves during the rest of the year.

 Basic Veterinary Workers

 Women have also been successfully trained as animal health workers, providing them with a regular income and improved status. Organizations involved in training women include the Dutch Committee for Afghanistan (DCA) and the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF).

So far, DCA has trained and deployed more than 100 female Basic Veterinary Workers (BVWs) and more than 20 female owned veterinary field units in the Central, Northern and North-Eastern Provinces. The BVW training is a five-week course on the major veterinary treatments. BVWs provide basic animal health services such as de-worming, vaccination, parasite treatment, basic operations such as wound treatment, and livestock extension. The BVWs were equipped with basic veterinary kits, medicines and vaccines as a start-up capital at their graduation. They provide their services on a fee-for-service. They are linked with the Veterinary Field Units (VFUs) for supply of medicines, vaccines and equipment. Women cannot report to the male animal health workers even if they are in their doorsteps due to the cultural/religious barriers. Women BVWs are therefore ideal solutions to address these problems. Similarly AKF’s experience is that both women and men agree that this work would be possible for women as women are responsible for livestock. People said women would be able to go alone to treat animals in the houses of others inside the village, but would need a ‘maharram’ (male family member) to go outside the village. It is likely that these socio-cultural norms are valid within the BAP project area as well. However more in-depth investigation is needed to find out to what extend women are accepted to be trained and to work as BVWs in the BAP project area.

Women’s access to resources

In agricultural economies such as Afghanistan, land and livestock are key assets of households. Decisions over large expenditures such as the purchase of livestock or land are negotiated between men and women with women having differing levels of bargaining power (from being ‘informed’ to having equal decision making power) depending on many factors such as location, education, ethnic group and the relationship between husband and wife. However the actual purchase is done by men. In Afghanistan cultural-religious norms dictate that men should provide for women, consequently they are regarded as the bread-winner of the family while women have the role of child barer and care taker of the household. As such it would be inappropriate for women to make large purchases. Access to these assets is thus primarily mediated through men. Exceptions exist such as in the case of widows who can purchase or own land and livestock. However in practice land and livestock are seldom owned by women.

 Women have decision power and control over small household expenditures. As poultry keeping is traditionally an all-women’s affair, women own poultry and can decide about selling and buying poultry birds, however in the majority of cases it is men (their husbands or sons usually) who will go to the bazaar for them to purchase or sell birds.

 The below case-studies demonstrate both differences as well as similarities with regards to gender labour division, access to resources and decision making within different families and ethnic groups. Interviews were conducted within Baghlan province. For reasons of privacy no village names are mentioned.

Qundigul and her daughters and daughter-in-law.

This Tajik family has livestock and agricultural land. Crop production is managed mainly by men while women manage livestock. Women prepare feed for the cows and provide water every day. They clean the shed and take care of the new born calves. If there is any health problem she will ask her husband to call the veterinarian.

Milk is processed into yoghurt, cheese, butter, buttermilk and qrut (dried yoghurt). Women in this household are not allowed to sell their products in the bazaar due to strict cultural-religious gender norms. Yoghurt is sold to several poor women in the village for 15afs per bottle; these women resell it in the bazaar for 20afs. Poverty or widowhood permits (or forces…) these women to sell in the bazaar but it is considered inappropriate for married and reasonable well-off women to sell in the bazaar. Poultry keeping is managed by women. Qundigal sells eggs to a shop in the village, but her husband will take the eggs to this shop and brings the money back to Qundigal. Qundigal can decide to purchase new chickens but again her husband will actually buy these for her. She thus doesn’t have full control over the type of chicken that will be bought. The income of eggs and yoghurt is managed by Qundigal and she uses it for school needs such as notebooks, pens and uniforms for her sons. Some families like this one do not allow their daughters to go to school as the schools in this village lack female teachers.

Decisions about large expenses are usually made together by Qundigul and her husband although this doesn’t relate to all big expenses; decisions about the purchase of a cow for example are made solely by her husband or son. The money of the household is managed by her husband. If Qundigul needs money she will ask her husband to provide it.

Durmohamed; a middle-aged Tajik man.

According to Durmohamed, men are mainly responsible for crop production but women are also involved; they do the weeding and post-harvest processing. The purchase and selling of livestock and poultry birds is done by men while women are the care-takers of cows and chicken. Cleaning the shelters, feeding, providing water, milking is all done by women as well as the processing of milk. His wife also makes dung cakes which they use in winter as fuel to warm their house. Final decisions about large purchases are made by Durmohamed although he does discuss with his wife first. If his wife would like to buy something and she has enough money for it he will get it for her. If she doesn’t have the money he will decide whether to pay for it or not. They used to have 5 cows but had to sell them all to pay for their son’s hospital bill after he had an accident. The money of the household is managed by Durmohamed. If his wife needs money she will ask Durmohamed to provide it.

 Bibi Aisha; a Pashtun lady 

Bibi Aisha lets the chicken out of their shelter and feeds them first thing in the morning. After this she milks the cow and cleans the shed. Within this family men and women have divided the work as follows: women are responsible for taking care of the cows and chicken, and men are generally responsible for sheep. This is actually quite common among all Pashtun families. In the winter when (part of) the sheep are staying in the family’s yard Bibi Aisha would also milk the sheep. Part of the cow’s and sheep’s milk is used at home and part is sold or first made into yoghurt and then sold. The grandson takes the milk and yoghurt to the bazaar and brings back the money. She uses the money to buy food and household items (such as tea and sugar). In this household eggs and birds are not sold because they have a very large family with many children and they consume all the eggs. Apart from milking sheep women are also responsible for handling and spinning of wool. Most is used for filling mattresses and pillows but when they have enough wool they will spin it and have their sons or grandsons sell it in the bazaar at 45 Afs per kilo. Bibi’s grandson keeps half of the money because he is unemployed at the moment, the other half is given to Bibi Aisha. Within this household and the Pashto community in general, women do not receive formal education and often do not speak Dari (one of the two national languages of Afghanistan). Women generally do not leave the compound; men go to the bazaar and sell products made by the women and buy food for the household.

Raila; a Hazara lady

Within this family Raila is responsible for taking care of the cows and chicken; feeding them, cleaning the shelter, milking etc. Her husband is responsible for the newly constructed fish pond and the crops. But women also work in the field during busy periods such as harvest and weeding and they’re very much involved in vegetable production.

Raila sells eggs to a lady in the village who collects eggs from the whole village and sells them in the Bazaar. Raila manages all the money earned with the eggs and uses it to buy necessary items for festivities like marriages and funerals, for household expenses and as pocket money for her children. Milk is collected by DCA and this money is also used by Raila for similar things. Decisions concerning expenditure of money and priorities are made by both husband and wife and both have equal decision power. If Raila needs extra money her husband will give it to her and vice versa. Within this household and the Hazara community in general girls and women receive education and are allowed to go to the bazaar.

Ismailia women 

The Ismailia community, like the Hazara is quite liberal when it comes to women’s rights, education and mobility compared to other communities in Afghanistan. Women can interact directly with men without covering or hiding their face. Women can also go to the bazaar on their own and both boys and girls receive education.

Many of the middle-aged women in this group fled to Pakistan during the Russian invasion; there they were wage earners working in factories (carpet/rug factory, soap, tailoring etc). When they returned to Afghanistan they were left without income. In Afghanistan there are no formal income earning opportunities for women especially not in rural areas. They had to adapt again to their traditional roles in agriculture and livestock; this includes poultry production, taking care of cows, milking the cows and spinning wool. Women are also growing vegetables. The women in this community don’t see poultry and livestock production as a means to an end but rather as a stepping stone for other economic activities.

Female-headed households in a traditional patriarchal society

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An estimated 60% of the Afghan population is female; drought, war, landmines and economic migration have given Afghanistan one of the highest concentrations of women-headed households in the world. In some families all the men are gone, leaving women isolated in a traditional patriarchal society. Women often lack ownership, control, and access to productive assets such as land and livestock, and their legal right to inheritance is usually by-passed. The lack of working capital reduces opportunities to start activities that require an initial investment.

 Many studies confirm that improvements in the economic position of women have direct effects on overall household welfare including food security, children’s education and health care. I personally observed that money earned by women is often spent on children’s education in a variety of countries including Bangladesh, India, Egypt and Turkey. In Afghanistan few other in-come-generating opportunities presently exist for women outside their homes and villages due to traditional and cultural restrictions. Therefore women should be supported in improving their animal husbandry skills and knowledge and improving the processing and marketing of animal products such as wool, milk, eggs, honey etc. The improved economic position of women corresponds with increased status and decision-making power within the household and at community level.

 Girl’s education and women’s mobility

As the case-studies have demonstrated sending girls to school (and boys for that matter) is not a customary practice in all parts of Afghanistan. Some families I spoke to do not sent their children to school (girls nor boys) because they don’t see the use of it, while others sent their daughters abroad to get an advanced University degree. Particularly within the more conservative Pashtun community, girls are not sent to school at all or only when there is a female teacher. There are exceptions to the rule as I described in an earlier post about the “Kuchi” where Pashtun leaders from Pul-e-Khumri district in Baghlan decided to construct a school for both boys and girls. Overall however, the tragic fact is that, in addition to a general lack of female teachers in Afghanistan, Taliban regularly threaten female teachers to leave their job. One specific example is the mother of one of my female Afghan colleagues who used to be a teacher until Taliban visited her at the school she was teaching demanding her to quit her job. If she refused they told her she would be badly hurt or killed. She got so scared that she in fact quit her job, making it impossible for some of her female students to continue education as they are not allowed to be taught by male teachers. She is now jobless and lacks the right connections to find a job elsewhere. Even with the right connections, the costs for such a job is far outside her reach; it is common for people to pay sometimes up to 2 years of salary to ‘buy’ a job. (I know this is also common practice in Cambodia and probably many more countries). This woman now depends on the financial support of two of her daughters.

Women’s mobility is severely restricted in Afghanistan apart from a few (relatively) liberal environments such as Kabul and several other cities in Afghanistan such as Mazar-e-Sherif, Faizabad and Herat. Within the more conservative Pashtun communities women rarely leave their family compounds. Others are less restricted in their movement (particularly women within the Ismailia and Hazara communities). In public the vast majority of Afghan women wear the burqa and in most cases have to be accompanied by a ‘maharam’ (an escort; a male close family member). Women have very little control over their fate; in general she has little choice about whom she marries, very little choice about her role in society other than that of serving her husband and serving her husband’s family and little chance of education particularly not after being married.

A woman in burqa shopping at the bazaar in Pul-e-Khumri

A woman in burqa shopping at the bazaar in Pul-e-Khumri


The long years of war and violence in Afghanistan, widespread poverty and continuous Taliban oppression have caused widespread depression and mental illness among the Afghan population.

Conflict and violence are main causes of depression and mental illness among Afghan people

Conflict and violence are main causes of depression and mental illness among Afghan people

Depression among women is particularly high as they face additional issues such as domestic violence, rape, and early forced marriages. According to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, between 60 and 80 percent of all marriages in Afghanistan are forced. Moreover, in almost 50 percent of cases women are married before the age of 18; in 15 percent they are not even 16. The number of women with acute depression in Afghanistan is 28% (nearly 2 million people) of the population of the country. A study showed that particularly in Taliban controlled areas, where women suffer from severely restricted rights, depression is extremely high among women.

I know a young women in her early twenties who grew up as a refugee in Pakistan during the Russian invasion. She is well educated and her English is excellent. Her appearance is quite modern; tight jeans, high heels, a tunic just covering her thighs and a headscarf loosely draped around her head. She refuses to wear the burqa and loves to drive her family’s car, but not without a price… She hasn’t been to the local bazaar for eight months as without the burqa she is continuously harassed by men. She now stays at home and asks her mom to buy things for her. When driving her family’s car accompanied by her brother she was stopped by a group of men who started condemning her for driving and interrogating her about her relationship with the men (her brother!) in the car. Finally her father had to interfere and rescue them out of their precarious situation.

This young woman might fit in much better in Kabul where women benefit from relatively more rights and freedom compared to the rest of the country, but outside of Kabul there still doesn’t seem to be a place for women like her. One day hopefully there will!

Literature used for this post:

DW (2013) Afghan women escape marriage through suicide. Deutsche Welle. Web based document: http://www.dw.de/afghan-women-escape-marriage-through-suicide/a-16750044

DCA (2012) Women Veterinary Workers Graduated in Bamyan. Dutch Committee Afghanistan. Web based document: http://www.dca-vet.nl/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/120607-Women-Veterinary-Workers-Graduated-in-Bamyan.pdf

GRSP (2012) Ghazni Rural Support Program; Women Empowerment. Web based document: http://grspafghanistan.com/programs/women-empowerment/

SDC (2012) Between bee stings and rays of hope – Afghan women’s income-generating ventures. Asia Brief, South Asia Division. Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. Web based document: http://reliefweb.int/report/afghanistan/between-bee-stings-and-rays-hope-%E2%80%93-afghan-women%E2%80%99s-income-generating-ventures

Sahak (2011) Afghan rug trade unravels. AsiaTimes. Web based document: http://atimes.com/atimes/South_Asia/MI29Df05.html

SDC (2011) Impact of SDC supported income generating activities on women in Takhar & Samangan, Afghanistan. Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation.

RAWA (2010) 2300 Women and Girls Commit Suicide in Afghanistan Each Year. Web based document: http://www.rawa.org/temp/runews/2010/07/31/2300-women-and-girls-commit-suicide-in-afghanistan-each-year.html#ixzz2hncfs300

Shah, S.M. (2009) Main Investment Opportunities in Afghanistan. Afghanistan Investment Support Agency, Research and Policy Department.

Geerlings et al. (2007) Highly pathogenic avian influenza: A rapid assessment of socio-economic impact on vulnerable households in Egypt. Report for FAO/WFP Rome 70 pp.

Grace (2005) Who owns the farm? Rural Women’s Access to Land and Livestock. Working Paper Series. The Afghani-stan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU).

World Bank (2005) Afghanistan: National Reconstruction and Poverty Reduction – the Role of Women in Afghanistan’s Future. The World Bank, Washington.

WHO (2004) Afghanistan: National Reconstruction and Poverty reduction. Role of women in Afghanistan’s future. Web-based document: http://web.worldbank.org/WBSITE/EXTERNAL/COUNTRIES/SOUTHASIAEXT/0,,contentMDK:20973595~pagePK:146736~piPK:146830~theSitePK:223547,00.html

Amowitz et al. (2003) A population-based assessment of women’s mental health and attitudes toward women’s human rights in Afghanistan. J Womens Health;12(6):577-87.

FAO (2002) Afghanistan’s women — the hidden strength of a war-torn land. FAO Newsroom. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Web based document: http://www.fao.org/english/newsroom/highlights/2002/020105-e.htm

Bradbear (n.d.) Beekeeping for people living in countries under stress: Afghanistan and Iraq. Bees for Development. Web based document: http://www.apiservices.com/articles/us/afghanistan_iraq.htm

GIZ (n.d.) Improving Women’s Living Conditions in Northern Afghanistan: Impact of Projects Funded by the Rural Integration (RI) Fund. Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Internationale Zusammenarbeit GmbH (GIZ). Bonn and Eschborn, Germany

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