03/05/2013 04:38 pm ET Updated May 05, 2013

On International Women's Day, a Crucial Moment for Afghan Women

By Jennifer Hardy

The planned withdrawal of U.S. and other international troops from Afghanistan in 2014 creates a crucial moment for that country. On this International Women's Day, we must recognize the need to preserve and advance the notable gains women have achieved over the past decade.

Traditionally, half the Afghan population has had limited participation in wider society. This must change. As former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said, "When it comes to the enormous challenge of our time--to systematically and relentlessly pursue more economic opportunity in all of our lands--we don't have a person to waste, and we certainly don't have a gender to waste, either."

And it is changing, as the experience of Catholic Relief Services shows: even small opportunities can make a big difference.

Helping Women Helps Families
Take Bonu, the poorest woman in a desperately poor village in Ghor province. Forget the politics in Kabul. She needs to add nutrients to her family's diet of plain wheat naan (bread) and weak green tea--every meal, every day, every year of the lives of her husband, their three children, her disabled sister and herself. Once a year, during the Eid-ul-Fitr holiday, a local charity provides a piece of lamb or goat. Otherwise, it's naan and tea.

Her husband's salary as a shepherd for a neighbor's small flock of sheep is a portion of the wheat harvest which must last the family all year. Bonu's worldly possessions are her family's clothes, some blankets to ward off the harsh mountain winters and two chickens. She sells the eggs. "How can I divide one egg between three children and my sister? This way, I can buy cooking oil for them to dip their bread for a meal twice a week. Then they all benefit."

Catholic Relief Services (CRS) recently rallied Bonu's community to help her build and plant a keyhole garden. Neighbors brought their donkeys to carry stones and soil up the steep hillside.

This simple raised-bed garden will provide a steady supply of radishes, lettuce and turnips. Despite freezing temperatures, the vegetables will grow year-round, thanks to special plastic sheeting that creates a small greenhouse.

According to Abdul Malek, the garden project's team leader, "Because we work with the very poorest families, adding new vegetables to their diet will make a big difference in their nutrition levels and vitamins."

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Nurturing Self-Sufficiency in Afghan Women

Education in Hard-to-Reach Places
Girls' education is a continuing challenge. Wori Borgud is one of those remote villages where the closest government school is a 3-hour walk, enough to prevent almost all of the boys in the village from attending school, and a complete barrier to girls.

"In general, communities will not allow girls to travel more than a mile and a half to attend school," says Christina Avildsen, education program coordinator for CRS in Afghanistan.

So CRS is establishing classes within villages. Outreach teams contact village leaders to gauge support for education. Those leaders find space for a classroom and a community member to work as a teacher. Community support ensures that families, in turn, will keep the school open for the long term.

In addition to coaching teachers on classroom management and instruction skills, CRS emphasizes gender and children's rights. Orazu, a 5th grade teacher outside Herat, in western Afghanistan, says, "We have true freedom when all of our children can go to school."

Access to education has been a centerpiece of CRS' work in Afghanistan over the past decade, helping more than 13,500 women and girls further their education, some attending classes for the first time.

Incomes When Jobs Are Off-Limits
Women in rural areas of Afghanistan face barriers beyond education when they need to earn an income.

In a community an hour's drive from Herat, for example, women have traditionally worked in their homes while men labor in the fields, growing crops that bring in cash. Widows, though, do not have opportunities to earn money.

"We widows have had to rely on our extended families to share the little money they could," says Nejiba, leader of a widow's group organized by CRS. These widows, usually poor even when their husbands were alive, can survive on food shared by their families and communities. But with no supply of cash to buy medicine, cloth or household goods, they needed a way to work while maintaining their culture and traditions.

Michelle Neukirchen, head of CRS programs in Afghanistan, says CRS helps women make money by starting businesses that meet their needs. "This particular group settled on raising lambs as something that could bring in money and largely be done within the home," she says.

CRS provided a female lamb to each widow and taught the women how to keep the lambs healthy. Now that the first ewes have given birth to their own lambs, women see the potential of selling wool and milk from several sheep.

"Now I will have twice as much wool and milk to use, and I can sell the extra," Nejiba says of her growing flock. "Someday, when I have many sheep, I will sell some at the market. Then I will buy a cow."

Such inexpensive, sustainable projects expand opportunities for Afghan women as the troop withdrawal approaches. While security will remain a concern in some provinces, wherever possible, aid groups and government ministries must continue to offer options for women to improve the well-being of their families.

If you're going to bet on anyone during this transition, the smart money is on Bonu, Orazu, Nejiba and millions of their Afghan sisters.

Jennifer Hardy is CRS' regional information officer for Asia and the Pacific Rim. She is based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.