Giving Afghan Women Their Self-Worth through Work

Mutabeqa is an extraordinary woman in her culture because she is doing something that most women in developed countries are already doing – work.

As a woman, working is out of the norm and can be considered a disgrace in her Afghan culture.

Unmarried and having to support her mother, Mutabeqa’s superb embroidery and leadership skills made her stand out in her community, making her an important asset of Zardozi, a sewing centre for Afghan women that works with families in refugee camps.

Mutabeqa’s work is deemed a disgrace to her family by her brothers, who abandoned her and their mother, because a working woman is still unaccepted in the Afghan culture. This is a perception that non-governmental organizations (NGO) such as Zardozi hopes to change.

Playing an important role at Zardozi, Mutabeqa’s role is to check on the quality of handmade goods and make sure the artisans are paid on time. Zardozi plays the vital link between the artisans and the mass consumer market, ensuring the appeal and quality of products are top-notch to keep these artisans’ livelihood sustainable.

A story like Mutabeqa’s is amazing yet hers is one of the many stories of resilient women in Afghanistan who are willing to forego family disgrace in order to focus on the practical needs of her family and immediate community.

Since 1984, Zardozi has been providing employment for over 3000 families at refugee camps along the Pakistani border. Marketing these handmade goods to the global marketplace, Zardozi helps to ensure that the refugee families have money to provide themselves with basic health and afford education. Because of the closure of refugee camps in 2008, Zardozi continued to provide employment for these families even after they moved back to eastern Afghanistan, so that their income would have some form of continuity.

The beauty of embroidered Zardozi products. Photo: Zardozi

In 2007, Zardozi set up Ganjina, a craft centre situated strategically in Kabul, Afghanistan, a prime location for trade to take place. Some of the handmade products that are sold there include jewelry, shoes, accessories, clothing, books, visual arts, calligraphy etc.

Zardozi currently employs more than 60 people in manufacturing products, product sales as well as camp outreach.

Some of Zardozi’s beautiful range of products can be found at The Hunger Site, where every purchase ensures a certain percentage goes to the purchase of free books for children in need, making education for the next generation possible. Like Zardozi, The Hunger Site supports the provision of fair wages to artisans.

To hear stories from the Afghan artisan women directly check out the video below, which promotes the sale of Afghan artisan products from The Hunger Site:

Fair Trade for Women in Afghanistan

Afghan women learning and making jewelry together. Photo: One World Projects


In a society obsessed with and snowed under consumerism, most of us buy without thinking about the origins of the products we purchase. Questions such as where the materials come from (South Africa? Pakistan? India?), who harvested them (below-wage laborers or at fair wage?) and who made them (factory made or handmade?) don’t come to us conscientiously because of the large amount of stuff we buy on a regular basis. Most of our products these days change through so many hands before they come to us and the profits that go into each stage of transfer means the laborers at the bottom of the food chain are at the greatest disadvantage and work the most for the least amount of wage.

Some businesses, however, are built on ethical principles that counter this ravaging behavior that consumerism produces and uses business as a means toward social change and community impact. One World Projects is one such initiative that is founded on the principles of fair trade, socially and environmental consciousness in conducting its business. Working with local development agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in developing countries around the world, one of the things they are passionate about is providing fair wages to its workers which in turns build up the lives of these workers and their communities.

One of the many organizations that One World Projects work with is the Madina Handicrafts Community (MDC), an NGO in Afghanistan that empowers women who are either disabled or in vulnerable situations by providing them with an education, teach them literacy as well as teach them basic business skills which will go a long way for them as individuals as well as their communities. These Afghan women are also taught how to make jewelry, which is a way of providing them with relevant trade skills that can bring them sustainable income. Handmade jewelries by these women are currently sold through One World Projects to various businesses around the world.

Handmade jewelry by Afghan women.

Handmade jewelry by Afghan women. Photos: One World Projects

MDC works with more than 200 women, most of who are disabled and from various war-town provinces such as Kabul, Qarabagh and Wardak.

Some encouraging stories can be found amidst these women. Shaima Shafaq, a victim of Afghanistan war, hosts the MDC workshop located in Kabul right in her home. Having been shot by an Afghan soldier didn’t deter her spirit. Instead, she desires to inspire other women like herself who have suffered the pains of the war, and hope that through an open, giving attitude, she can inspire others to lead better lives and bring them out of their own seemingly hopeless situations.

Retail and wholesale purchases of these handmade jewelries by MDC can be made directly at One World Projects’ website as well as through eBay’s World of Goods site, a sub-site especially dedicated to ethically produced, eco-friendly merchandise.

When we make an ethical decision to support and purchase the handicrafts of Afghan women such as those from MDC, we can do our part to help them rebuild their lives and their country, which will eventually bring peace to their land.

Unleash Afghanistan’s Potential through Education

Author of The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini, was once quoted as saying,

Education of the general population is critical to the transformation of Afghanistan’s political and economic condition.”

Woman learning how to read and write at the Afghanistan Relief Organization. Photo: ARO

Indeed, since civil war has ended, education is one of the programs that non-governmental organizations (NGO) such as the Afghanistan Relief Organization (ARO) place high on their priority to get Afghanistan and its people back on their feet.

ARO runs two education programs in Afghanistan, the Women’s Literacy Program as well as the Rural School Project, targeting women and children respectively in these initiatives.

Given that approximately 75% of schools were ruined because of Afghanistan’s 30 years of war, there was an urgent need to rebuild these so that its people can have an education. In 2002, it was projected that 5,574 schools need to be reconstructed or built.

To encourage women into the Women’s Literacy Program and get an education, these Afghan women are given US$50 per month as family support. This program works hand in hand with the Sewing Initiative Program which provides home-based work for these women, encouraging them towards self-sustainability in order to deliver them from the vicious poverty cycle. Without vocational skills, it is hard for women to find any form of work.

Women being trained in vocational skills at the Afghanistan Relief Organization. Photo: ARO

Margaret Stockover, then ARO volunteer and now project leader of the sewing initiative, spoke of her trip in 2004 to visit the women at the Sewing Initiative Program, “The amazing thing about Afghan women is their ability to hope in the face of all odds. All they want is a chance. A chance for peace. A chance to provide for their families. A chance to live with some degree of security.”

“These are women just like us…laugh, they cry. They want their children to grow up in a secure environment, with food to eat and a warm place to sleep. The Sewing Initiative seeks out women like these,” adds Stockover.

Education gives these women a second chance at life, and an opportunity to better take care of their families.

In support of ARO’s education efforts to women and children, film producers at Participant Productions and Paramount Vantage made ARO the sponsored NGO for the award-winning film, The Kite Runner, a moving story of that centres around the lives of two young boys growing up in Afghanistan.

In 2007, ARO distributed 500 laptops sponsored by Paramount Classics and DreamWorks Pictures studios to school children in Kabul, Afghanistan. This was an initiative as part of the One Laptop per Child which helps children in developing countries.

Through ongoing support from donors, ARO is able to provide education for women and children to unleash their fullest potential as useful Afghan citizens.

Rebuild Afghanistan through the Hands of Afghan Women

The Afghans have an old saying, which goes something like “a woman is the light of a family”.

Three decades of war has left many Afghan families stripped of its males as breadwinners for their families.  For decades, Afghan women not educated past the age of eight and were not allowed to work and all this was when Afghanistan was still under the Taliban rule. With the burden now of having to pick up the pieces for their families and be the sole breadwinner instead, this new responsibility brought fear but also renewed hope in many Afghan women.

Where most Afghans who manage to leave their homeland rather stay abroad, away from the destructiveness of the war, Rangina Hamidi is one entrepreneur and women rights’ activist who decided to return to Afghanistan in 2003 to be a part of her country’s rebuilding process. One of the things she decided to do in order to help bring financial stability to families is by providing women jobs through Kandahar Treasure, a handicraft business.

Kandahar Treasure is based in Kandahar, Afghanistan, a place where different political regimes have sought to use it as a base for power for strategic reasons. For Hamidi, Kandahar is also where she calls home.

Despite the new government in place, traditional patriarchal attitude prevents women from going out to work and providing for their families. On top of that, although Afghanistan receives foreign help at this point, Hamidi fears that this will only lead to other complications. Hamidi feels strongly that providing jobs for women is the solution towards rebuilding her country.

“Afghans themselves have to take their own share of responsibilities,” Hamidi said. “Afghanistan cannot have a better future if the way things are done are not changed.”

Kandahar Treasure employs about 350 women artisans within Kandahar, where all of them work from home. Because all products are handmade, there is no need for electricity and machineries. The women are paid immediately upon the delivery of handmade products, and after ensuring that the products are of good quality. Some of these products include embroideries, jewelry, belts, scarves and all of them are embellished in Khamak style, a traditional Afghan style of embroidery.

Women at Kandahar Treasure working together.

Women at Kandahar Treasure working together. Photo: Cosmopolitan Review

Not only does Kandahar Treasure help these women rebuild their families but using their hands at work also gives them a purpose in doing something to preserve and rebuild their culture. When Hamidi first started the business in 2003, she had trouble getting the women to provide quality products, which makes it a challenge to sell the handmade products in a competitive accessory industry. After encouraging the women that their artwork will go towards the preservation of the richness of their culture, the quality of the products improved tremendously.

Kandahar Treasure products are currently sold through Global Goods Partners, The Feminist Majority, Santa Fe Folk Art Market, UNICEF – USA.

Enjoy the richness and a piece of Afghan culture when you buy a Kandahar Treasure handmade product, as the women do their part to preserve and enrich it with their hands and labor.