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As the US departs Afghanistan, female entrepreneurs must maintain progress

As the US departs Afghanistan, female entrepreneurs must maintain progress
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The risks for women and girls in Afghanistan are increasing. The recent bomb attack on a girls’ school in Kabul was a well-organized strike aimed at intimidating girls and those who work to educate them. Meanwhile, peace talks between Afghanistan’s government and the Taliban remain in flux. As Americans get set to pull all troops from Afghanistan by early September, preserving the gains made in women’s rights over the past two decades must be a key focus of the international community and civil society.

Women in Afghanistan have come a long way since Taliban rule. An analysis of a women’s business database created and maintained by the Afghanistan Women’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry (AWCCI) shows that the majority of women-owned businesses are less than five years old. This information, drawn from 17,639 businesses in Afghanistan, means most women tenaciously started their businesses amid considerable insecurity and worsening economic conditions following the 2014 drawdown of international troops and development assistance. Meanwhile, the country’s constitution sets aside 27 percent of seats in parliament for women, and the tide of public opinion has turned to approve of women working outside the home.

Despite these gains, challenges exist, and they could be exacerbated by concessions made to the Taliban during and after negotiations. However, Afghan civil society is offering a vision for a future Afghanistan where women can thrive under any form of government. AWCCI fortuitously released the country’s first Women’s National Business Agenda just one month before the new date for troop withdrawal was announced. The agenda articulates challenges faced by businesswomen and suggested reforms and was informed through conversations with more than 1,300 Afghan businesswomen and political leaders. Its recommendations, described below, have a new relevancy and urgency ahead of the forthcoming exit of U.S. forces.

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Women in rural areas experience unequal access to jobs, education and other services in comparison with their urban counterparts. They would benefit from additional business training supported by the international donor community and access to safe market space, although the current political and security climate could make this untenable. A businesswoman in Nangarhar told one of us that, “We should create stories and use existing platforms to the benefit of women in rural areas, who are interested but have no opportunity [to participate],”  

The government should take additional steps to improve inclusion for women-owned businesses. While the government has instituted preferential scoring for women-owned businesses while rating bids, this does little to improve women’s ability to win contracts if they fail to meet the entry-level requirements for most requests for proposals. AWCCI successfully led advocacy for the five percent preferential clause in the National Procurement Procedure in 2018 and are now calling policymakers to go one step further. The Afghan government and National Procurement Authority should institute a 10 percent quota for women-owned businesses in procurement to enhance inclusion and challenge the control of the market by a few politically connected businesses.

Finally, peace is crucial, because insecurity naturally underscores these issues and all others listed in the Women’s National Business Agenda. Continued fighting stifles women’s ability to engage in business and often intersects with social and cultural norms when families impose restrictions on women’s movement outside the home in response to safety concerns. All stakeholders must be committed to improving security conditions for women to flourish in the economy. 

Afghanistan’s future remains precarious, and the international community has a responsibility to continue supporting the partnerships it has built in the country over the past two decades. AWCCI was prepared to present its recommendations to international stakeholders during a parallel event at the Istanbul peace conference, which has now been postponed. What is clear is that the benefits of women’s entrepreneurship have had a ripple effect on the larger community. The analysis showed that women-owned businesses employ women at four times the overall national rate of women’s employment and contribute to broader efforts to strengthen the economy. 

The reform recommendations proposed by the Women’s National Business Agenda offer a roadmap for achieving a gender equitable economy and concrete steps for protecting hard-fought gains and expanding those opportunities and rights to a broader cross section of Afghan women. 

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Afghan women have come a long way in the last two decades — far enough that a women’s business organization is leading an organized private sector attempt to improve conditions for women entrepreneurs. 

Manizha Wafeq is cofounder and president of the Afghanistan Women’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry (AWCCI) and founder of the 'Bibi Khadija Award' for Afghan business women. She is the winner of several awards including the Enterprising Women Magazine Award, Leadership Award from the National Business Association of the U.S., and Young Activist Award from the Afghan Women's Network and the Afghan Lower House of the Parliament.

Erinn Benedict is a program officer for the Center for Women’s Economic Empowerment (CWEE) at the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE), which has financially supported AAWCI’s work. She was previously the associate program officer for Afghanistan at CIPE and an administrative assistant at the American Institute for Afghanistan Studies.