Against the odds, a new agricultural outreach model targeting rural women is taking shape in Afghanistan – and delivering on its promise of empowerment, greater productivity, and higher incomes.
War and instability in Afghanistan have devastated a once-thriving agricultural sector. One fallout has been the hardship faced by Afghani women. As men continue to leave home – first to go to war and more recently to seek employment in Kabul and elsewhere – women have been left behind to take care of the household and land.
Although women are key to the survival of Afghanistan’s agricultural sector, in a traditional society that places strict limits on women's mobility and freedom, delivering the support they need is never straightforward and can often generate significant resistance.
Despite challenges, ICARDA's Afghanistan office has reached over 10,000 women in recent years. How has the Center achieved this, delivering support in remote and conservative parts of the country where resistance can be so high?
Acknowledging realities on the ground has been crucial. ICARDA staff adopt a practical approach that involves going through male community leaders, discussing an initiative, and then explaining how it can generate benefits - not only for women but the whole community. Once convinced, leaders are then encouraged to identify more open-minded farmers who are willing to involve their wives and daughters in trainings and workshops.
When resistance is encountered, persuasion is used. ICARDA staff members explain that women are already active in the field, so why not support efforts to increase their productivity and help them contribute more significantly to household income?
The use of female facilitators is an additional factor in ICARDA's success. Identified for their leadership skills and confidence within rural women's associations, these women communicate directly with female farmers, lead workshops and training initiatives, and provide role models.
Trust has also been important: over the past 13 years, the Center has built a solid reputation in Afghanistan, working alongside farmers to raise their productivity and help rural communities rebuild after decades of conflict. This experience has provided legitimacy, generated confidence in ICARDA's mission, and made communities more receptive to the Center's efforts to include women in new initiatives.
A tough road – but big returns
Efforts to include women in capacity-strengthening initiatives are beginning to pay off – not least in the Dairy Goat Management Project, a flagship initiative of ICARDA to improve the livelihoods of women, which recently came to an end after a six-year journey.
The project combined research and development activities, providing rural women with technologies to improve goat and forage production. A major focus was building capacity on animal health and improving the production of milk and other value-added dairy products.
Special cooperatives were established to provide eco-friendly infrastructure, while the Ministry of Agriculture supported value chains by opening a counter within the Ministry where women could come and sell their products.
For fodder crop improvement, the project also trained graduate women on producing quality seeds. Establishing women-based village seed enterprises helped village women to market improved seed; while women-based fodder banks ensured the availability of fodder during long, harsh winters when animals can often die of starvation.
A model for others to follow
Development organizations are now studying ICARDA's outreach strategy closely, recognizing its ability to make inroads into traditional communities and convince community leaders that women's involvement in capacity strengthening is a worthy cause. Action Aid, the Aga Khan Foundation, and Care have all sought ICARDA's help.
Targeted trainings in watershed management and crop improvement have been delivered to the staff of these organizations – enhancing the potential of Afghanistan’s women and providing additional support to the country’s on-going rehabilitation after decades of conflict and instability.