Afghanistan grapples with a range of challenges from growing insecurity to stagnating growth and rising levels of poverty. It is no surprise that the impact of the violent conflict on the country’s economic prospects and the welfare of its people is profound. Yet, Afghanistan carries ambitious development goals including achieving gender parity in primary schooling by 2030 among others. To ensure Afghanistan meets its goals, it is important to know how the country has progressed on socio-economic outcomes.
In collaboration with the Ministry of Economy of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and based on data provided by the Central Statistics Organization, the World Bank recently published the third edition of the Provincial Briefs (also available in Dari and Pashto), which provides a comprehensive profile of the most recent progress on a set of socio-economic indicators including education both at the national and at the provincial levels.
What do they reveal? We can see Afghanistan has achieved impressive improvements in human development outcomes—in areas such as education, health, and access to basic services. But this overall progress has not benefitted everyone equally and gaps in access between Afghans living in different provinces persist. In fact, where Afghan families live matters greatly for their socio-economic outcomes. And when it comes to schooling, this is no different. Location determines whether children will go to school or not.
An Eggless Bakery in Sikkim
Tucked away behind the monastery at the popular Buddha Park, on one of South Sikkim’s many serene hilltops, stands the eggless Tatagatha Bakery. The bakery is run by a Self-Help Group of local village women with funding through a microcredit program supported by the NERLP. A bakery is an unusual, innovative idea for microcredit, but the Buddha Park attracts many pilgrims, and the bakery is always in demand. Going eggless and dairy free has meant it can better cater to its core clientele of monks, pilgrims and visitors; it has also reduced the need to transport perishable supplies up the steep hilltop.
The project team mobilized a veteran baker from the rail head town of Siliguri to train the local women initially. The project ran into teething problems early on: a single SHG was rallied, but not all members were equally committed, which saw high dropouts after training. The team changed tack, and elicited individual interest regardless of membership. Twenty women have now been trained. Uptake by SHGs has undoubtedly been gradual, but it is early days yet – the bakery only opened in May 2016. These women see the bakery’s potential and are willing to bet on its success, accepting lower wages for now.
How does a poor woman in rural Bangladesh make use of her business acumen if she lacks education, lacks opportunities to learn new skills, no assets of her own, a husband who earns just enough for the family to survive from day to day, children to look after and a society that had traditionally disapproved of women working outside the home?
The story of Hafiza Begum offers one answer. We interviewed her as part of our on-going research in Bangladesh, which sets out to understand its female labor force participation rates. This phenomenon of lower than expected female labor force participation appears to characterize the wider South Asia and MENA regions, despite their positive growth rates. What are some of the reasons?
Hafiza was born into a family too poor to educate her and she was married off at an early age. Her husband worked for daily wages wherever he could find it. Their two young daughters went to school in the local madrassa because it was free. She emerged from our interview as a woman who was determined, within the social norms of her society, to combine caring for her family with finding the resources she needed to build up her own business.
She told her husband early in their marriage how she planned to do this. “Suppose you buy me a kilogram of onions to cook our meals with. If I use 2 onions in a meal, you won’t be able to tell. Even if I use half an onion for a meal, you still won’t be any the wiser. Yet if I use just half an onion every time I cook, our supply of onions will last longer and we will save money.”
This thrifty attitude had been the hallmark of her housekeeping throughout her marriage. She boasted to us that when her husband recently went away to work in a brickfield, she managed to save Rs.400 out of the Rs.500 he gave her to run the house. How did she do it? She went to the marshes near their house to catch fish, keeping some to eat and selling the rest to her neighbors. She supplemented the vegetables she planted on their homestead plot with edible greens that grew wild near their house. She spent money only on what she could not produce herself.
Will rural communities in Afghanistan be deprived of development services upon the completion of the National Solidarity Programme (NSP) in the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development (MRRD)?
What will happen to the Community Development Councils (CDCs) established in rural communities to execute people’s development decisions and priorities?
Will our country continue to witness reconstruction of civic infrastructure?
These were some of the questions that troubled thousands of villagers as the NSP neared its formal closure date - NSP had delivered development services in every province of Afghanistan for 14 years.
To address these questions and allay their concerns, the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan formally launched the Citizens’ Charter Program on September 25, 2016 to sustain the uninterrupted development and reconstruction in Afghanistan.
Fatima brimmed with optimism. The 19-year-old recently established a poultry enterprise with the support of a micro-grant, and was thrilled at the prospect of financial independence.
“After my family moved from Pakistan, I had few options for work,” she said from her home in the Paghman district in the outskirts of Kabul. “The grant not only allowed me to start my own poultry business, but let me work from my own home.”
With over half the population under the age of 15, Afghanistan stands on the cusp of a demographic dividend. To reach their full potential, Afghanistan’s youth need to be engaged in meaningful work – enabling young people to support themselves, but also contribute to the prosperity of their families and communities.
Last week, I took a journey on Mumbai’s suburban train system, which carries a staggering 8 million women and men, equivalent to the entire population of Switzerland, every day to where they live, work, and spend time with family and friends. Although stretched, the system has reduced mobility constraints and increased independence for millions of women who rely on safe transport to access education and job opportunities; contributing to the city’s dynamism and growth. There are similarly inspiring examples from all countries in South Asia.
As we mark International Women’s Day, we celebrate the progress made in improving women’s inclusion and empowerment, while seeking to better address continuing challenges, which are estimated to cost South Asian economies $888 billion, through devising and implementing solutions that will bridge remaining gaps.
Much to be proud of—a lot more remains to be done
South Asian countries have seen encouraging increases in greater access and gender parity in education. At the same time, the region has achieved substantial decreases in maternal and child mortality. Countries have made great strides in healthcare access through training more female healthcare workers while providing affordable care for mothers and children. The region also boasts many inspiring female leaders and role models, as well as the countless individuals positively contributing to their communities and societies against difficult odds.
However, much more needs to be done in order to nurture all women and men to realize their potential. As South Asian countries become more prosperous, their growth trajectory will be less assured if hundreds of millions of women remain excluded from education and employment opportunities. South Asian countries will need to substantially expand their workforce in order to meet their economic growth goals and, at the same time, adequately support their increasingly large populations. Studies show that only around 1 out of 4 women in South Asia participate in the labor force, about half of what is typical in middle-income countries in other regions. Too many women face restrictions in decision-making, mobility, public safety; and far too many experience gender-based violence—the most egregious cases making headlines around the world. What can help bridge these gaps?
Today marks International Women’s Day throughout the world. Here in Nepal, it is a joyful tribute to the fact that the country boasts three women holding key leadership positions in the country – Bidhya Devi Bhandari as President, Sushila Karki as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and Onsari Gharti Magar as Speaker of the Parliament.
All three are the first women to hold their respective posts, and the Chief Justice, especially, has been lauded as a bold and independent decision-maker.
The Constitution of Nepal 2015 has been a huge improvement from the days of yore: Article 43 deals with the rights of women that include rights to lineage, right to safe maternity and reproduction, right against all forms of exploitation, and equal rights in family matters and property.
The Government of Nepal is also working to incorporate gender equality in all development policies and programs, including developing a gender responsive budget system.
We also have excellent examples of women making great leaps in almost all fields – science, economics, banking and finance, media, environment, education, public health, social service and development.
And in a heartening move, Chhaupadi, an inhuman practice that imposes upon women to stay outside their homes in unhygienic cow sheds during menstruation and childbirth, is set to be criminalized in the new legal code.
However, progress made in specific fields has not yet contributed to the overall improvement in girls’ and women’s lives across the country. Similarly, plans and policies do not always spur positive changes in reality.
Women and men agree on Afghanistan’s development priorities according to the findings of the country’s most recent Living Conditions Survey of 2013/14 where more than 20,000 Afghan women and men were separately asked what they thought their government’s main development priority should be.
Both women and men picked service delivery, infrastructure development and increased security as top development priorities. Three-quarters of men and women said that the main priorities were improved access to drinking water, construction and rehabilitation of roads, and improved health facilities. About 15 to 18 percent of the respondents picked more jobs, access to agriculture and veterinary services, and improved local education facilities. Not surprisingly, in districts rated as insecure, priorities for both women and men shifted toward increased security. This emphasis on security meant that men and women in these districts gave a relatively lower priority for infrastructure services especially for road construction and electricity provision.
Jeyaranjini lives near Kilinochchi in Northern Sri Lanka with her husband and daughter. They have been rebuilding their lives through the North East Local Services Improvement Project (NELSIP), which uses a Community Driven Development (CDD) approach to tailor projects based on community needs in this conflict affected region.
The project has helped build 611 km of roads, 23 km of storm drains, 400 community public spaces such as markets, parks, and playgrounds, as well providing improved access to water and electricity across Sri Lanka.
“Each community member used to be alone, but now we learn, exchange ideas, and make decisions together,” she said.
South Asia has a strong tradition of local participation
Let me offer a couple of other examples: Nepal’s Self Governance Act in 1999 decentralized services delivery to villages and districts. In Afghanistan, Community Development Councils (CDCs) receive funds, in which they then manage to support their villages.
In post-disaster contexts, CDD has shown to be fast, flexible and effective at re-establishing basic services. In fragile or conflict-affected states (FCS), the approach has also helped rebuild trust within communities, and between communities and governments.
Projects incorporating CDD approaches give control over planning and investments to community groups, and aim to empower communities to deliver services to the poor and vulnerable.
CDD principles can contribute to the realization of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a roadmap for the international development community to promote sustainable economic, social, and environmental development by 2030.
Currently, the World Bank has 41 active CDD projects worth $6.1 billion in South Asia, including 21 projects in India worth $4.2 billion.
Parvati Amma comes from Pulkattai village in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu where the Tamil Nadu Empowerment and Poverty Reduction Project (TNEPRP) has conducted a unique experiment. In an effort to raise the very low levels of women’s participation in India’s labor force, it is helping rural women break into jobs that are traditionally held by men, where they could increase their earnings significantly.
In this part of Madurai district, most of the men folk are successful masons. The women worked as helpers, merely passing tools to the men as they laid brick over brick to build houses and office blocks. Being unskilled, the women earned half the men’s wages.
Even though Tamil Nadu is one of the most urbanized states in India with high literacy rates, new buildings are proceeding apace amidst the state’s booming construction industry, attracting over a million migrant workers - more than a tenth of whom work as unskilled labor. There is, however, a paucity of trained masons.
The challenge for the women was to take on age-old social and cultural barriers and enter into this exclusive male preserve. Masonry has never been seen as a woman’s job in India, much less in this conservative rural area. For a start, the women wear sarees that constrain them from climbing onto scaffolding to build the higher storeys. Masons are also required to travel long distances for work, and staying away from their families is not something the women could easily do. Apart from mobility constraints and worksites that are not women-friendly; domestic responsibilities, burden of child and elderly care, and a conservative societal outlook, are all challenges.
Nonetheless, the women of Madurai’s Pulkattai village were not to be daunted. They saw this as an opportunity to prove their worth and double their wages in the bargain.
Supported by a visionary panchayat president and an expert mason from the village who had confidence in the women’s capability - Parvati Amma and 25 other women joined the masonry training offered by the project.