How do you win the fight against the Taliban? According to Dana Freyer, chair and co-founder of Global Partnership for Afghanistan (GPFA), "The best bulwark against the Taliban are members of the community who have an economic stake in their lands and who resist insurgents' threats and intimidation." Women are doing just that in parts of Afghanistan.
For the past seven years, Freyer and her organization have been delivering tree saplings and agricultural training to rural villagers in 13 provinces across Afghanistan. GPFA's strategy has always been to partner with individual landowners who can provide the labor required to till the land and raise crops. For every sapling GPFA delivers to a farmer, she (or he) must pay the organization back with a cutting once the tree is strong and healthy enough to produce cuttings. After seven years, a farmer's half-acre poplar or willow woodlot can yield up to $30,000 in net profit from lumber sales. The organization also teaches women how to cultivate vegetable and strawberry gardens for their families, but also for sale in local markets. Additionally, GPFA supports entrepreneurs through training and seed capital in nursery, solar food drying and beekeeping ventures. The non-profit has worked with 25,000 entrepreneur farmers benefiting 250,000 men, women and children.
But the biggest story is how GPFA continues to be so successful in empowering women to earn a sustainable income -- with the full support of the male villagers. Importantly, it's not an exclusively women's organization; in fact, 80 percent of its efforts involve training and education for men and women. However, in each new village it enters, GPFA goes to the village elders and listens to their specific wants and needs, and in return for training and saplings, GPFA always has one condition: women must be active participants and beneficiaries in the enterprise development programs. The elders agree provided that the GPFA staff who will work with local women, are also women.
Freyer reflects on the GPFA's approach:
"What do people need more than anything in Afghanistan? They need jobs and income. Yes, they need education, but they have to put food on the table. And if women have jobs and income, their children will go to school and their girls will stay in school longer. But we also knew that you can't change attitudes towards women just by going to women. You have to work with the men...Once the men see the benefits to their families of women's increased income, they buy in. And the impact on the women and their families is just amazing, because we know that women's earnings are spent on better nutrition and better education for their families. Women now have a voice in their communities."
Now back to those Taliban. Last year for International Women's Day, GPFA's Afghan staff organized project demonstration fairs in Logar and Wardak provinces, both of which continue to have Taliban in their midst . GPFA invited women from the surrounding villages to teach them how they could earn an income by growing strawberries, vegetables and fruit orchards, or running a solar food drying operation. They also demonstrated the power of turning honey into money through beekeeping. But prior to the event, the Taliban harassed several of the women. Dana Freyer describes it:
"The Taliban are famous for sending villagers threatening 'night letters.' Which say, 'Don't go to this or your family will suffer.' The women, instead of succumbing, invited three more women to come. There were around 1600 women between the two communities. Nobody could ever recall seeing such a huge gathering of women outside of their compound walls... These women are so strong. They have to be, just to survive. And their voices and business successes are changing the attitudes of men."
Through GPFA's perseverance and patient efforts, several thousand rural, mostly illiterate women are now income-producing entrepreneurs in Afghanistan. Once again, the power of women helping women has turned a war torn territory into a peaceful profit-maker.
This post first appeared on Forbes.com.
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