Diana Hashim Zada perches on a wooden bench next to a woman hard at work weaving a large Afghan rug on a vertical loom. As they talk, the woman’s hands continue to quickly maneuver the wool thread, building an ornate carpet knot by knot.

Hashim Zada is the Afghanistan Director of Label Step, a nongovernmental organization based in Switzerland that works to improve wages of traditional carpet weavers in eight countries.

Working from Mazar-e-Sharif, the capital city of Afghanistan’s Balkh Province, Hashim Zada’s organization is also motivated to improve social conditions of these talented women.

Most Afghan women who weave carpets work in their own homes—and the isolation can have a myriad of social, psychological and physical repercussions.

“Rug weaving is a tradition in the Turkmen and Uzbek areas” of Central Asia, Hashim Zada says. “Culturally, they have little tolerance for women and don’t allow their women to leave their homes. We wanted to get them out of their homes into an outside environment, so they could speak with each other, share their problems and partner with one another.”

Diana Hashim Zada speaks with weavers.
Diana Hashim Zada speaks with weavers at a Label Step weaving center. Photos by Jim Huylebroek.

Fortunately, in one of four weaving centers in Mazar-e-Sharif established by Label Step, women collaborate on designs and materials and divide the labor. Children too young to go to school play in the garden. Older children who arrive after school watch their mothers practice an old tradition that is passed along from each generation.

Label Step centers have seen their number of participating weavers swell, now serving a total of 40 women. Hashim Zada attributes this increased interest in part to the Afghanistan Workforce Development Program (AWDP), which provided practical training in marketing, finance and project management to Label Step’s staff in Mazar-e-Sharif. Depending on the topic, the intensive courses consist of 16 to 21 sessions, each lasting 90 minutes to two hours.

The program is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and implemented by Creative Associates International.

Of the Label Step’s nine female employees who completed the trainings, two staff members learned new marketing skills that allowed them to encourage women to join the centers instead of weaving at home.

It is essential for this talented, but hidden, workforce.

“There, women will get the chance to work outside of their home. If they’re weaving from morning until evening alone at home, it’s very tiring,” explains Hashim Zada. “All of your senses and thoughts are on a carpet.”

Creating opportunities to learn

In a country with high levels of poverty and unemployment, the Afghanistan Workforce Development Program is partnering with businesses and nongovernmental organizations, providing training to raise incomes and help workers find new and better jobs across a wide range of industries.

Hashim Zada says for a small nongovernmental organization in Afghanistan, it can be a challenge to find professional learning opportunities. Through AWDP training, not only did Label Step Afghanistan strengthen its marketing and outreach to local weavers, it also improved its business accounting systems and streamlined project management.

”Before, we lacked the very important skills that we learned from this program. We had the passion, but we didn't have the capacity to reach this level” Diana Hashim Zada, Director of Label Step Afghanistan

“Before, we lacked the very important skills that we learned from this program. We had the passion, but we didn’t have the capacity to reach this level,” she says. “Luckily, after getting to know the AWDP program, we were able to achieve those skills and witness its positive impact on our office, personal lives and financial matters.”

In Mazar-e-Sharif alone, the program has assisted about 4,000 people find new or better jobs, 1,500 of them women.

Nationally, the USAID-funded program used a demand-driven approach that identified the skills needed by businesses and other organizations. Working with established training centers, the program crafted curriculums in marketing, project management, finance and other areas to equip workers with these in-demand skills.

Traditional carpet weaving.
Traditional carpet weaving is a long and difficult process beginning with hand-spun wool.

Now in its seventh and final year, the Afghanistan Workforce Development Program has provided nearly 38,000 people in Mazar-e-Sharif and six other cities with training that aligns with market demands, 36 percent of which are women.

Saber Daneshjoo, AWDP Technical Program Manager, explains that focusing on gender is essential in a country where women make up only about 17 percent of the labor force.

“Gender integration is an essential requirement of AWDP. For example, AWDP requires that females constitute at least 25 percent of the program’s beneficiaries,” Daneshjoo says. “This applies to all aspects of the program, including training and placement of the participants, or staffing level of the project implementers. Fortunately, AWDP has managed to go far beyond the initial 25 percent benchmark.”

The program’s trainings benefit professional, mid-level career women like Hashim Zada, honing their professional skills and raising incomes. In some cases, these new skills allow them obtain promotions within their organizations or find new employment that demand these practical skills.

“This program helps society and people who have been away from education, particularly women,” Hashim Zada says. “More programs like this should be provided to women, and every woman and girl should have opportunities to grow professionally.”

Empowering women, from offices to looms

Weaving is hard, tedious work. Unfortunately, a full day’s work on a loom may result 30 Afghanis a day, or less than 50 U.S. cents, for each woman. Label Step’s mission is to increase working conditions and daily wages, which are sometimes a household’s only source of income. The organization works to build links to international markets so women can sell carpets at a higher price and earn better wages.

Hashim Zada says she hopes that in the future, Label Step can help its weavers raise their incomes to 80 Afghanis a day, or about $1.15.

Afghan weaver.
Label Step hopes to more than double the wages of weavers through its centers and improved connections to exporters.

AWDP’s Daneshjoo says that as the Afghanistan office of Label Step improves its business operations, the employees become better able to reach and serve the female weavers of Mazar-e-Sharif with weaving centers and other support.

“AWDP’s skill building trainings can best empower women communities through groups like Label Step, who enjoy a grassroots level of access to local women and are well aware of the types of skills and competencies they need to bring positive changes to their lives,” he says.

For the weavers, Hashim Zada says, the centers can make a huge difference – by raising incomes to support their families, and through personal empowerment.

“Usually in the home, women just wash the clothes and cook for the men, take care of the children,” she says. “But when they work outside of the home, they get the feeling that they are human beings and have rights like men. That’s what I wish for these women, that they will be able to work outside the home and have an income that can help themselves and their families.”

With reporting by Aziz Gulbahari, Michael J. Zamba and Saber Daneshjoo from Mazar-e-Sharif and Kabul, Afghanistan.