In Afghanistan, Fatima* works to empower and prepare women for positions in the government. For Fatima and for many of her colleagues, this job is personal. She remembers the barriers that impeded her own life and career path.
“As a girl, I was a victim of an early and forced marriage,” she said. “Most of these women experienced situations like mine.”
Although many of the young women with whom Fatima works are educated, she knows the challenges they faced to achieve that milestone.
“I’m sure they didn’t earn their education easily,” she said. “They’ve fought many barriers — including not getting permission from their families to study in locations shared by men, placing housework and child rearing before their education, or not having money to purchase their books.”
Fatima works for the USAID Promote: Women in Government (WIG) project, which aims to address Afghanistan’s gender disparities and barriers to access for women in government roles. Implemented by Chemonics International, WIG is a five-year project with a one-year immersive, capacity building internship program for young Afghan women. The project works closely with the Afghan Government, civil society, and local media to raise public support for women working outside the home.
Barriers to Entry and Equity
Nearly a quarter of Afghans do not believe women should work outside the home according the Asia Foundation’s 2019 survey. The same survey found that girls represent 60 percent of the 3.7 million children not enrolled in school in Afghanistan, and women’s literacy rates are approximately half that of their male counterparts.
Even when Afghan women overcome family, educational, or societal barriers, workplace obstacles remain. Offices frequently lack basic infrastructure accommodations for women, such as restrooms and female-designated prayer rooms. Additionally, women commuting to and from work face persistent harassment from men in public spaces and on public transportation.
“There was a lack of awareness about anti-harassment issues among employees and leadership,” said Lailee Rahimi, the former WIG internship coordinator team lead, about Afghan workplaces before WIG. “No one knew how to react when a woman was harassed. There weren’t a lot of tools and policies or procedures to defend women’s rights in an organization.”
Lailee also noted a lack of capacity among female applicants as another challenge for gender equity in Afghan workplaces. “There weren’t strong female candidates to compete for leadership positions,” she said, reflecting on WIG’s efforts toward achieving gender equity in the civil service, including changing societal perceptions about women working outside of the home. “There are a lot more women now that can compete with male candidates,” Lailee said.
The same factors and challenges that hindered the hiring of women across Afghanistan affected the WIG project office as well. Traditional “fair and transparent” recruitment processes were insufficient when comparing female applicants to male applicants who had benefited from years of systemic advantages in education and work experience.