By Saad Mohseni
and Don Ritter
sometimes hinder rather than help achieve noble goals.
Two decades of war and a Taliban policy that reflected total ignorance
of women and their importance to society have stimulated the West
to make up for the deprivations suffered by Afghan women.
Over the last three years, the international community funded
hundreds of women's nongovernmental organizations and efforts
associated with the development of women's groups. Although many
of these projects have assisted thousands of women in achieving
higher levels of self-reliance and independence, the bigger picture
is that Afghanistan's women remain isolated and to a large extent
still irrelevant in one essential place, the country's private
Afghanistan's women generally exist in parallel to their male
counterparts. Segregated at an early age, Afghanistan's men and
women have little or no opportunity to develop interpersonal skills
crucial to social cohesion. Creating new divisions and lines of
privilege within the pool of limited private-sector resources
slows people down; it builds new obstacles where natural activity
and gender integration might otherwise flow.
An organization affiliated with the United Nations Development
Fund for Women (UNIFEM) recently proposed building a women's industrial
park in Kabul referred to as the "The Kabul Textile Works."
Given that industrial parks are situated on the outskirts of Kabul,
it would force women to venture out of town to work and shop.
The long trip out of town cancels out the potential benefits of
being an all-women's environment. Many of the women could be exposed
to checkpoints and possible intimidation or harassment on their
lengthy trips just attempting to get to the "women's industrial
park." Employers in Afghanistan already recognize that their
female employees' biggest challenge is transport and traveling
long distances with the permission of their families.
This would amount to gender division, funded by the international
community, inadvertently encouraging the replication of social
mores akin to a country like Saudi Arabia.
Another proposal -- a "women's bank" -- proffers similar
contradictions. A large majority of Afghan women are illiterate
and such an organization could just as easily as a regular bank
exploit the women it intends to assist. Why not work with existing
banks to provide specialized services for women customers, thereby
trying to integrate them?
America's response to segregation of blacks, and women for that
matter, was to integrate and to offer affirmative action, not
create new segregated institutions. What's good for one of the
world's most integrated societies should serve as a telling example
for one of the world's most divided.
Men and women need to work together first so they can find ways
to work together successfully. There are tasks in many organizations
that only men can perform, and best perform in conjunction with
women and vice versa. But to eliminate qualified males whose higher
level of training could benefit large numbers of women is, in
fact, counterproductive to the intent of "women-only initiatives."
An example is the Afghan Women's Vocational Skills Learning Center,
a local nonprofit which has done far more to benefit Afghan women
than many of the "women-only" NGOs in Kabul. The head
of the organization is a man and a master tailor and educator
of highly reputable character.
To date, he
has certified over 6,000 women with vocational skills related
to tailoring and handicrafts. Plus, because he is also an effective
businessman, he often is able to employ his best graduates and
provide them with concrete income generation. His organization
has much to do with his character and years of experience.
But he has been turned down for training visits abroad and other
programs that would benefit the large numbers of women that he
assists. Rather than accept the reality that in modern-day Afghanistan,
organizations are led by men, but still can benefit women, he
was told by UNIFEM that they were only interested in "women-led"
It is time for the international community to step back a little
and examine this phenomenon and ensure that the assistance provided
integrates women into society and does not isolate them.
The private sector in Afghanistan is the best hope to integrate
women into society. In the wider business community, experienced
businessmen and women can assist in building capacity amongst
women. Integration and the performance of women in the private
sector should be the goals of the donors.
Integration -- particularly in developing women's business potential
-- could bode well for a more cohesive existence that benefits
Afghanistan's capacity to perform, not only as a market economy,
but as a nation.
Saad Mohseni is a director of Moby Capital Partners, a commercial
media entity in Afghanistan. Former Rep. Don Ritter is an investor
in Afghanistan and senior adviser to an Afghan business-community
effort to promote investment and market-based economic policies.