When Kamila Sidiqi started her company in 2005, she was an exception in Afghanistan: an educated woman and an entrepreneur. Few women at that time had access to education – only 18 percent of women were literate – and even fewer were able to start a business.
In the decade since then, she boasts, women have made significant progress.
“A lot of women are going to university, and they’re working with international organizations, with the government,” she says.
Women have embraced opportunities for education, and while only a small percentage of businesses are women-owned, Sidiqi believes that given the opportunity – and the skills – more women will join her as business owners.
“If they have a chance,” she says, “they can do anything. They can go to university, they can start a business, they can work in the government, but first of all they need a chance.”
That’s exactly what her company, Kaweyan Business Development Services (KBDS), is providing.
With support from Creative Associates International’s Afghanistan Workforce Development Program (AWDP), Sidiqi’s KBDS offers training programs that provide women with the skills to find a job, receive a promotion, or even start their own business.
KBDS focuses its training on two critical skills: project management and employability. Women learn how to create an action plan, track a project to completion, perfect their interview skills and write compelling CVs.
Connecting women to the private sector
AWDP, a four-year program funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, has the goal of increasing job placements and wages for 25,000 Afghans through access to quality training. The program mandates that 25 percent of those trained must be women.
Salem Helali, AWDP’s Deputy Director, says having women in Afghanistan’s workforce is no longer a luxury.
Ensuring women’s participation
At first, grantees found AWDP’s demand-driven model and its strong emphasis on training women daunting.
“AWDP is a completely different experience for me and also for my staff,” says Sidiqi, who was the subject of the book The Dressmaker of Khair Khana. “Because in the beginning, everybody was saying that it’s not possible to implement such a project, especially finding jobs for women.”
Zahra Khawari, Grant Activity Manager for AWDP, noticed similar reactions when reaching out to potential grantee organizations.
“One of our grantees,” she remembers, “I saw him so eager about the placement of men. Once I said you have to place 25 percent women, he wasn’t interested in that.”
She pushed him to accept the challenge. Now “he’s seeing the eagerness and demand. He’s now saying ‘Ok after that, I will get all female participants,’” AWDP’s Khawari says.
Khawari thinks it was the women themselves who changed his mind.
“I think the most important thing that changed his mind was the participants, the females,” she says. “Change happened.”
Sidiqi has noticed a shift as well. Since adopting the AWDP model at her company, she says, “There has been a huge increase in the number of our employer partners.”
“KBDS has been able to establish and maintain excellent contacts with several key players in the private sector,” she continues.
Broader implications for Afghanistan
Incorporating women into the country’s economy is a challenging but necessary goal. One that will have repercussions far past the corporate office doors.
“For an Afghan woman,” says Helali, “if she has her own income, 80 percent of the investment comes back to the family. Kids go to school and she takes care of the entire family.”
Yasmin Alokozay, Business Development Manager at KBDS, grew up in a progressive Afghan family, where she was encouraged to go after her dreams. While not always the case, that experience has shown her the long term results of educating and employing women.
“The impact on the economy itself is undeniable in terms of a woman working,” says Alokozay. “If a woman is educated and she’s working, she passes on those values to her children. And it’s the long term impact that you see in the lives, in the society, in the mindset, in the culture.”
It’s the culture that Alokozay feels is preventing Afghan women – and the country as a whole – from realizing their potential.
“Culture is the biggest obstacle here,” she notes. “As more and more women work and actually are educated then there is a hope that the culture will change over the years to come.”
At KBDS, Sidiqi hopes that she can continue to reach more women, and instill the confidence and skills they need to find employment and develop their own voice.
“We have to do something more for those women,” she says. “And bring some change for their family and community and country.”