Tag Archives: economic development

Women at Work in Kosovo

A few days after leaving Afghanistan, where I had my first experience with Women for Women International’s program, I travelled on to Kosovo, the second stop in my tour. WfWI opened its office in Kosovo in 1999, the same year the Kosovo War ended, and so far has served over 30,000 women there.

Shortly after arriving, the differences between the women we serve in Afghanistan and those we serve in Kosovo became quite clear to me. During a visit to a vocational training center in Sllatina, I was struck by the fact that even though the Kosovar women were socially excluded and from households with limited assets they were eagerly recording tips on how to improve production of lettuce in their gardens and greenhouses in their notebooks. This was a stark contrast to Afghanistan, where few of the women enrolled in the program had basic numeracy or literacy skills.

While on the whole women in Kosovo face far fewer dangers than those in Afghanistan, their lives are far from easy. Their struggles are very different, but the will and determination to move past them is the same.

One of the major challenges facing women in Kosovo right now is a deeply troubled economy. Over the past few years, Kosovo has had very little economic growth. The unemployment rate stands at 45%, among the highest in Europe. But for women, the economic situation is even worse, as women’s unemployment is at 55% and only 6% of businesses are owned by women. Nearly half the people of Kosovo are living in poverty.

Signs of limited economic opportunities were everywhere in the homes we visited with several family members crowded into limited space, in the costs of food in the markets and the income earning potential of the women we worked with, in the numbers of youth gathered in public spaces with little or no prospects for work.

Early in my travels in Kosovo, I met a woman named Lindita Balas, a thirty-year-old mother of five who was participating in WfWI’s program. Five days after giving birth to her youngest child, Lindita decided to enroll in the program. Just two months in, Lindita has already learned skills that are going to help her increase her economic independence by selling vegetables she grew in her kitchen garden. She told me how the opportunity to meet other women and network with them had given her encouragement and confidence to try something new like this. Lindita was married at 16, and hasn’t had many opportunities to do something for herself, but she told me she enjoys gaining a broader understanding of her rights and building relationships with other women.

Across the country, women are seeking opportunities to earn an income to support their families. For the women enrolled in WfWI’s core program, the business skills training they receive is giving them crucial skills for success. In learning how to price their goods, how to market and sell their products, and how to plan investment needs, women who before had few economic opportunities begin to understand how they could take the leap into business.

Many of the women I met were eager to try to save enough money to build their own greenhouses. It was clear that any seed capital for these budding entrepreneurs would go a long way to opening up opportunities for selling produce within the communities where they lived.

The women know that success will take a lot of hard work, but for them it’s more important to depend on themselves than others. One of WfWI’s graduates Abetare Balaj Halili  told her life story how given her political activities prior to independence she was imprisoned several times, she had to quit studying after completing high school. Enrolling in the WfWI program convinced Abetare to do something for her and her family. She saved some of her training stipend, and she started a business to decorate cars for weddings. She used the business training to carefully cost her inputs including the costs of ribbon, and the chiffon she used to decorate the cars – given that weddings were by and large recession proof she had succeeded in developing a thriving business. Her profit margin was sufficient to provide for both herself and her family.

With such poor economic conditions, the Kosovar women WfWI serves are putting themselves at a competitive advantage in the marketplace. By learning beekeeping, horticulture, dairy production, or capturing a market trend in the service industry, women are able to create new opportunities for success.

Learn more about how you can become involved and support Women for Women International’s work in Kosovo.

Advertisements

3 Comments

Filed under Afshan's Country Tour

Afghanistan Part 2: How We Start the Conversation

Over the next few months, WfWI’s new CEO Afshan Khan will be visiting each of WfWI’s eight country offices and sharing her experiences of the different people and places that are part of WfWI’s mission to change lives, one woman at a time. This is her second blog post from Afghanistan.

On my third day in Afghanistan, I had the opportunity to visit a group of women who use the vocational knitting skills they learned during their time with WfWI to earn an income, producing high-quality accessories for international markets. In talking with the women, they shared with me how the extra income has made a huge difference, not only in what they can afford for their families, but also in their treatment by others in their family.

Earning an income is not an easy feat in Afghanistan. Over a third of the people are considered to be in poverty, and half the people are vulnerable to falling into poverty.

WfWI participant discusses vocational training with an instructor.

WfWI participant discusses vocational training with an instructor.

I’ve seen firsthand in my time here how many challenges women in particular face when they try to earn an income. Passing through the marketplaces and bazaars, there are numerous women on the streets, but not one woman is selling anything at any of the stands. Though it is not acceptable for women to publicly sell items here, they often produce the goods that are sold, working in isolation in their homes. For example, the majority of Afghanistan’s economy is agriculture-based, and women do a large amount of the labor. But they don’t own the land or the means of production, and so they don’t have control over the resources they produce. Since they are excluded from the sales process, their profits are taken from them.

For women, earning an income offers new opportunities to take care of themselves and their families. When women are able to contribute to the well-being of their families in this way, it often changes how they view themselves and their worth, and has a similar impact on other family members who benefit from the increased household income.

To help women gain greater control over their economic activities, WfWI’s staff is training women not only in vocational and business skills, but also how to form groups and transform them into cooperatives. By joining together, women are able to build in a layer of economic security and ensure fair payment for their work. A women’s cooperative can afford to hire a male salesman and a stall in the bazaar to sell their goods, putting them in greater control. Together, women can also access larger markets in Kabul, rather than relying on smaller village markets.

When I visited with women who were members of a poultry coop in Parwan, they told me how cooperatives offered them numerous other benefits as well. They give women a sense of security and belonging as they begin to work, often for the first time. Working in a coop can also provide women a greater awareness of their own personal influence and importance in a local organization. Coops become a forum for collective problem-solving, and promote other democratic values such as equality, personal responsibility, openness, solidarity, cooperation, and social responsibility.

Women’s coops in Afghanistan face a number of hurdles though, such as high illiteracy rates, lack of access and control of resources, restricted mobility due to insecurity and gender norms, and lack of community support.

WfWI participant Bagi Gul, with a letter from her sponsor, Glenna.

WfWI participant Bagi Gul, with a letter from her sponsor, Glenna.

In order to create a space for women’s economic participation and protection of their rights at the community level, WfWI’s staff in Afghanistan has been working with local mullahs and imams, sensitizing them to women’s issues. This Men’s Leadership Program (MLP) is an effort to raise awareness with community leaders about the negative effects that violence against women, economic restrictions, and disregard for their rights has on an entire community. After our staff works with these trusted leaders to build their understanding of women’s rights, the leaders then work with the men in their community to ensure they also understand why it’s important to safeguard women’s rights and ensure violence against them stops. It creates a space for a shift in attitudes towards women to begin. Men become allies, paving the way for much faster and certain inroads for women.

After talking with our staff about the MLP, one question stuck with me. How do you start the dialogue with male community leaders who have perhaps cared very little for women’s issues in the past? How do you get them in the room for training on women’s rights?

Sweeta Noori, our Afghanistan Country Director explained, “We never tell them they’re coming to a training program. We ask them to come and advise us. That’s how we start the conversation with them, by showing that respect to their position.”

And so far they’ve had great success. Over 560 mullahs have been invited to give our staff advice and have ended up with a better understanding of women’s rights. In turn, WfWI has been invited by many mullahs and imams from other villages to bring our program to the women (and men) of their communities. Change can and does happen, if done the right way.

As the end of my time in Afghanistan nears, I’m savoring each moment – the strong smell of the tea we drink all day long, the magnificent view of the Hindu Kush Mountains that seem to float in the distance, and the echoes of the call to prayer after sunset. But most of all, I’ll miss the warmth, kindness, and utter hospitality of the many people I’ve met here. They have an amazing inner strength to keep life going, despite all the terrible things happening around them. I am humbled by their courage.

Check back soon for my next post from our programs in Pristina, Kosovo.

Learn more about how you can become involved and support Women for Women International’s work in Afghanistan.

3 Comments

Filed under Afshan's Country Tour