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COVID-19 & Afghanistan: Q&A with WE Lead Scholar Homa Usmany

WE Lead Scholar Homa Usmany shares updates from Afghanistan and ways she is helping her community during COVID-19.

Article by Michael Bailey June 19, 2020 //   7 minute read

Homa Usmany is a 2019 WE Lead Scholar from Afghanistan. She is executive director of Zardozi, a nonprofit that works with women in rural Afghanistan, providing guidance on starting small businesses and selling goods at local markets. The first female law graduate of American University of Afghanistan, Usmany seeks to empower women with limited education to raise their income sustainably.

During a recent interview with the Bush Institute's Leadership Programs Manager, Michael Bailey, Usmany shared updates from Afghanistan and ways she is helping her community during COVID-19.

Michael Bailey: Every nation is battling COVID-19. What is happening in Afghanistan right now? How is your community?

Homa Usmany: The COVID-19 pandemic came into Afghanistan in mid-February in the Herat province that shares a border with Iran. Most of the people with COVID-19 [initially] had recently visited Iran. The virus very rapidly spread all over the country. Afghanistan is a poor country, the majority of its population is in big cities like Kabul, Herat, Kandahar and Mazar. People do not have secure jobs—they earn daily wages. And because the government has forced Afghans to stay home, people are not earning money and a lot of people are starving. Unfortunately, the government is not able to help feed all of the families in need. However, wealthy people and some NGOs have been working to provide food items to these families but, I'm afraid this will not continue if the government has to extend the quarantine.

MB: Tell us about Zardozi, and how the nonprofit is helping empower women and help others during this the COVID-19 pandemic. 

HU: Zardozi is a local NGO established in 2006 that focuses on women's economic empowerment. We provide impoverished and marginalized women with business and skills training courses. Training is followed by practical market linkages and access to long term business services through local Community Business Centers (CBC). Currently we are working with 6,000 women across Afghanistan.

Now that we are all in quarantine, we had to shut down our CBCs. But, Zardozi and our clients wanted to do something to help our families and community. Since our program is stopped for the moment, our senior management team decided to use the program money to fight COVID-19 in the areas described below.

1)     Making masks and protection uniforms:

Our clients who are working in the tailoring and textile sector have started making masks and protection uniforms. Most stores have sold out of masks. There are a few stores that still have masks, their prices are so high that ordinary people cannot afford them.

2)   Spreading awareness and information:

 We will aim to broadcast messages talking about what Coronavirus is, how it is spread, how to stay safe, and updates on government guidelines. Messages will be spread digitally on social media and by Whatsapp groups, and physically using Zardozi cars with banners and going to door-to-door.

3)  Cleaning the community from further spread of coronavirus:

Our client leaders, known as Kadars, have requested materials and liquids to make sterilize spray to spray in the communities where the government has not given attention to. There are volunteer women including our Kadars who will use this method to clean local buses, bakeries (bread shops), village shops, etc. in order to combat the virus.

4)  Helping families in need get food:

Many families are not fighting COVID-19, but hunger. We have made a list of some of those families and are sharing it with friends, family and wealthy people in our country to financially help. These families are in a bad situation. The breadwinner of these families on our list are mostly widowed-women who used to work on daily wages and now due to quarantine they have lost their jobs. Their kids are hungry.

MB: Why is it important to you to spread awareness and information about COVID-19 in Afghanistan?

HU: It is important. It’s a global pandemic and people should know that it is killing us. They have to be aware that is very dangerous and they have to cooperate with the government and health system to stop the spread and get through this difficult time. It is not one person’s problem, it’s a problem of the entire world and everyone has to do their part. Our health system is very weak, we do not have enough hospitals and medical care providers and equipment, so people have to know about it and try to at least minimize the spread.

MB: Why is it important for businesses in Afghanistan and around the world to continue to invest in empowering women in the workforce?

HU: Since women are half of the population, they have to equally contribute to the economy and to peace-building, in case of Afghanistan. Women are dedicated to improving and contributing to their society, even in the smallest ways. A poor and uneducated women with almost no facility in a corner of a village thinks she has to make masks to save people, while men are fighting over power. This is something to think about. It has been months since the results of the election have been announced, and we still have no idea who is the president because they are fighting against each other.

MB: Is there anyone you’ve worked with in the last few months who has really inspired you during this time?

HU: The women I'm working through Zardozi are such inspirational people. I’ve watched them make masks and protection uniforms, spray antiseptics in their communities, shops, local transportation, and collect money and food items for poorer families. This is amazing. This gives me hope to live and to do more.

MB: What is your hope for the future of Afghanistan?

HU: My current hope not only for Afghanistan, but for the entire world, is to get through this time soon and to have an environment free of the coronavirus. Specifically for Afghanistan, I hope we will be able to sign a successful peace deal with Taliban and have peace in our country. Afghans are tired of war. If we have a safe and peaceful country and world, anything is possible.