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Afghan entrepreneurs engage with U.S. to promote women in the workplace

April 4, 2014 7 minute Read by Melissa Charbonneau

As Afghanistan prepares for this week’s historic presidential elections that could shape the future of women’s rights nationwide, a delegation of Afghan entrepreneurs is touring the the United States to advance economic empowerment for women in the workplace.

“I want the women of my country not to lose their hope, and to be brave and strong,” says Paimana Hamid, a delegate from Herat in western Afghanistan.  “We hope the international community does not leave the women of Afghanistan alone. We received lots of assistance over the past decade, and we need more help and support in the future. Do not forget us.”

Hamid is among those selected by the U.S. State Department for the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP).  The project hosted the representatives from Afghan ministries, provincial government, and civil society to engage with U.S. counterparts and foster a dialogue about women’s rights and the role of entrepreneurs in Afghan society.

Mrs. Laura Bush met with the delegation in Dallas to highlight their personal success stories and recognize the courage of the women of Afghanistan.

“I think about you often, and will never forget you,” Mrs. Bush told the group.  “I will always be interested in your progress.”

Mrs. Bush echoed her commitment to securing the gains achieved in women’s freedoms over the past decade. Through the Afghan Women’s Project she remains committed to ensuring opportunities for continued education and the empowerment of women in Afghanistan.

Increasingly,  women like Manizha Paktin, a civil engineer and IVLP delegate from Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan, are stepping up to shatter longstanding cultural barriers in Afghan society.

“We have a symbolic democracy, and it’s very difficult for a woman to take a higher position and work,” says Manizha Paktin, an IVLP delegate from Mazar-e-Sharif. 

Paktin is helping train a new generation of young, qualified women who can compete on an equal playing field with men in their profession.  As a professor at Balkh University and head of the non-profit  “Stand up for Afghan Academic Women,” Paktin spearheads the education of females in engineering, science, and technology. 

“We established Stand up for Afghan Academic Women to assist women with the potential to stand out in the crowd,” Paktin says.  The group supports female graduates of schools, colleges, and universities in the region by organizing professional training workshops led by female trainers, each with her own area of expertise.

Paktin is a role model, encouraging Afghan women to “stand up, raise their voice, and have professional exchange among themselves and try to touch the high peaks of their success.” She is a key figure overhauling the cultural landscape of bias against working women. At 32, she is a leader in the Mazar-e-Sharif business community and president of the RAD construction company that employs more than 40 workers. Since the end of Taliban rule in 2001, her company has constructed roads, bridges, and 46 schools in the district, including 12 schools for girls.

“We are living in a traditional country,” Paktin explains. “People do not like girls to study with boys. Girls do not have the ability to go to some courses to continue their education.  Sometimes they do not find work according to their profession, and most of them stay home because their husbands do not allow them to go to work.”

As the educated daughter of a diplomat father and a journalist mother, Paktin is working to transform society’s views on education and women at work as the first step in helping Afghan girls get ahead.

Encouraged by their U.S. visit, IVLP delegates are mindful that it took American women years to break through the employment glass ceiling, and it will take time to change prejudices in their own country.

With the anticipated drawdown of U.S. and NATO forces later this year, the delegates are urging their western colleagues to help sustain hard-won achievements by providing more technical expertise, capacity-building, and funding for women’s education. Near Afghanistan’s western border, the investment is already paying off.

”In Herat, the people are more open-minded about working women than in other provinces in my country,” says Paimana Hamid, an economics lecturer at Herat University and regional internship coordinator for Women in Government Program, Economic Growth and Governance Initiative, Deloitte.

“In 2010 the national women’s employment rate was 18 percent, but in Herat 27 percent of women were employed,” Hamid says.  “Why? I think the people are more educated, and the women living in the city have more independence. Still, we have the highest rate of violence against women, especially for those women living in villages outside the city. Women are afraid to go to work because of threats and kidnappings.”

Hamid says the government must act to tighten security and prosecute crimes against females to improve conditions for working women. Yet despite the obstacles, Hamid sees Afghan women forging ahead in the workforce. 

One shining example is Hamid’s NGO that successfully runs a youth program now placing women in government organizations for six-month internships.  The success rate is high, Hamid says.  Following the internships, the NGO has been able to find jobs for nearly all the women who complete the program.

As Hamid, Paktin, and IVLP delegates take the lead in creating employment opportunities for themselves and other Afghan women, the backing of their own government is paramount.  Equally as important as the country transitions to new national leadership is the continued assistance from the international community. The Afghan Women’s Project supports a strong international commitment to nurture the freedoms, rights, and economic viability needed for the women of Afghanistan and their nation to move forward.