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ARZU: Empowering the Women of Afghanistan Through Employment

Article by Sara Van Wie February 7, 2013 //   3 minute read

The Bush Institute’s Afghan Women’s Project spotlights the struggles and successes of Afghan women by telling their personal stories, publishing briefings and reports, and highlighting beneficial projects.

Earlier this week, I had the privilege of attending an exhibition of the ARZU Masters Collection in Houston, Texas.  ARZU, which means “hope” in Dari, is a social enterprise that seeks to empower Afghan women through artisan-based employment.  Founded in 2002, ARZU Studio Hope believes in a holistic approach to poverty reduction that pays fair labor wages for locally sourced, hand-knotted rugs and provides educational and health benefits to its employees. ARZU rugs were on display during the Bush Center’s 2011 conference, "Building Afghanistan’s Future: Promoting Women’s Freedom and Advancing their Economic Opportunity”, an event focused on promoting economic opportunity for women in Afghanistan.

ARZU founder Connie Duckworth first visited Afghanistan in 2002 as a business representative for the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council.  Duckworth, a retired partner and managing director of Goldman Sachs, left Afghanistan with a desire to “do something.”  A believer in the power of enterprise to alleviate poverty, Duckworth began to research business options that could adhere to fair labor practice, but function in an environment without electricity, running water, a banking system or machinery and within a culture that restricted women’s access to public space.

“I had a bias to have it be a very high-quality, artisanal, women-made product,” Duckworth said.  “That’s how we got to rugs.” 

Karen Hughes, former Under Secretary of State for Public Affairs introduced the project saying, “It’s a special and unique and wonderful model.”  In its first year, ARZU hired 30 artisanal women weavers.  The enterprise has grown to employ 700 women, one of the largest private employers of women in Afghanistan. 

The Masters Collection is a collaboration between ARZU and six prominent architects – Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Robert A.M. Stern, Margaret McCurry, Stanley Tigerman, and Michael Graves.  It is “almost a perfect juxtaposition of some of the greatest minds in architecture married with a centuries-old skill.”

Duckworth remarked, “We have to celebrate a lot of small victories, because that’s usually the way they come in Afghanistan.” 

I am sure ARZU’s 700 employees (and their 8,000 dependents) would agree.

This post was written by Sara Van Wie, Research Associate for the Afghan Women’s Project with the Women’s Initiative.