Small loans make a big difference for women in Afghanistan

By Ashley Jackson
Alam measures a kilo of wheat for a customer. With support from Oxfam and other women in her community, Alam started a small business from her home. Photo: Michael Borum

Sitting on the floor of her shop, Alam carefully measures out a kilo of wheat for her neighbor. With help from Oxfam and other women in her village, Alam started her own small business six months ago.

"Before I was dependent on my husband, but now I have my own money," Alam says with a smile.

Alam is a member of a self help group in the small village of Shar-i-Buzurg in the northern Afghanistan province of Badakhshan. As part of a larger rural livelihoods program funded by the Oxfam Canada and Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, Oxfam has started self help groups for women in 10 villages.

Each group, with an average of 20 women, receives $300 in revolving funds to help the women start small enterprises. Oxfam also provides training and ongoing support to help the women manage their new businesses.

Alam is one of the first three women selected by the group members to start her own business. She recently completed repaying her loan and the group is now selecting a new batch of women for loans.

"We support each other's businesses," said another group member. "Whenever I need to buy something, I go to one of the other women's shops."

Alam says her husband was originally unsure about the idea of his wife starting a business. But now that he has seen the shop's success, he has become one of its biggest supporters.

"But if my husband wants something from the shop, he has to pay for it like any other customer," Alam laughs.

Badakhshan, a largely rural province with little infrastructure, has one of the highest poverty rates in Afghanistan. Persistent drought means that many families go hungry in lean years and malnutrition levels in women and children are high due to limited dietary options and lack of access to vitamin-rich foods.

Women in Badakhshan face even greater challenges. It is considered one of the worst places in the world to give birth—for every 100,000 live births, 6,500 mothers die—and just one in five women are literate. Highly conservative gender norms have meant that women's access to health facilities has been limited to those few clinics with a female doctor. Marriage for girls as young as 12 has been common and few adult women have completed primary school.

However, Nasima Sahar, the Oxfam gender officer in Badakhshan, is seeing some positive changes.

"When I started working here in 2002, the women were reluctant to even tell me their names because they thought it would bring shame upon themselves and their family," says Nasima. "Now they seem like completely different women, they have more confidence and you can tell how excited and motivated they are."

Training and support for the self-help group includes educating women about domestic violence and child marriage. Along with this, gender training is also being provided to more than 1,400 "change makers" across Badakhshan—men and women who have the power to change opinions and attitudes, such as religious leaders, doctors and government officials.

Oxfam is also supporting a local partner organization to provide literacy classes for 450 women in Badakhshan and runs an incentive program to attract qualified female teachers from the provincial capital to move to remote, rural areas of Badakhshan.

"Without a female teacher, many families are hesitant to send their girls to school," Nasima says. "Only 70 girls attended the school before the incentive program began, but now there are over 1,100."

Based on this success, Oxfam is now expanding this initiative to provide incentives for additional female teachers.

Though she never had the chance to complete primary school, Alam has higher hopes for her daughter.

"I got married when I was 12 or 13," Alam says. "But now my daughter is in secondary school, and I won't let her get married until she has completed university and is at least 22!"