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FEATURE STORY June 2, 2021

Afghanistan's Women Self-Help Groups on the COVID-19 Front Lines

Story Highlights:

  • In Afghanistan, the Women Economic Empowerment Rural Development Project (WEE-RDP) is a national program that empowers rural Afghan women to mobilize into self-help groups.
  • These groups help their members access financial services and start small businesses. During the COVID-19 pandemic, self-help groups have also provided critical support for health and livelihoods.
  • The self-help groups help fight misinformation, train communities on how to prevent the transmission of the coronavirus, and provide loans for medical expenses and livelihood assistance.

BAGRAMI DISTRICT, Kabul Province—On a sunny June afternoon in a village, the streets were deserted, unusual in Bagrami district, which is located just a short 30-minute car ride from downtown Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital and most populous city.

The silence is only interrupted by a lone sweet seller whose calls from his bicycle draws a few children from their homes into the street to buy a treat from their favorite traveling salesman.

Usually, on any given summer day, the streets would be busy with life—grocers hawking ripe melons, motorbikes and cars shuttling to and from Kabul city.

But in the summer of 2020, silence had fallen over Bagrami district, as it had in villages and cities around the world. Storefronts shuttered and families remained at home because of the COVID-19 pandemic. While local lockdowns have been vital to stem the spread of the virus, they have had far-reaching social and economic consequences.

In the village, a group of 10 women gathered in a small room to hold their weekly self-help group (SHG) meeting. The agenda is always focused on the latest issues, whether it be savings and loan coordination or female empowerment.

In times like these, many in the community have turned to their local SHG, which was established in January 2019 by the Women’s Economic Empowerment – Rural Development Project (WEE-RDP). Operated under the government, the project is a national program that empowers rural women by helping them to mobilize into SHGs, open small businesses, and access financial services.

"We didn’t know much about savings at the beginning, we were spending all the earnings without giving any further thoughts about our future."
Kabul province

Life-saving Information

To date, 36 SHGs have been set up in Qale Ahmad Khan, a village with a population of over 8,000.

“We have received trainings on how to social distance, use mask and gloves, and the benefit of different nutrients [in fruits] such as lemons, cherries, and oranges on the immune system,” says Nazari, 41, a mother of five.

The training was especially valuable to Nazari when her husband fell ill with COVID-19 in June 2020. She applied what she learned from the training to properly quarantine her husband and keep herself and their children from being infected while he recovered at home.

, according to Hamidullah Kaliwal, 28, a WEE-RDP Field Coordinator. In all the three districts, 1,260 people (828 women and 378 men) received COVID-19 awareness during this time.

Sustainable Solutions for the Community

The SHG not only provided Rahila with vital information, it also granted her a 2,000-afghani ($26)* loan to help cover her husband’s medical expenses. “For 14 consecutive days he had fever that had left him motionless, and we didn’t have any money to admit him to a hospital,” says Rahila. “So, I took the loan from the self-help group and bought him Paracetamol, cherries, lemons, oranges, and other fruits and made juices for him.”

After her husband’s recovery, they were faced with another dire problem. With businesses shut down due to COVID-19, Rahila’s husband, a construction worker, had no work and no way to earn a living to provide for his family. “I didn’t have any money to feed my children,” she recounts. “I had only 60 afghanis [77 cents] to buy just bread for breakfast.”

The SHG threw Rahila a further lifeline by helping her secure another loan and form a plan of action. “I borrowed 2,000 afghanis and bought a bicycle,” Rahila says. “[My husband] uses the bicycle to sell goods like dishwashing liquid and powder and snacks to other residents.” The plan proved a success as many people preferred not to leave their homes during these uncertain times and were happy to have a delivery service of these small goods. “I am thankful to the SHG that has helped me and my family. My husband now earns 300 afghanis [$3.90] a day,” which Rahila says is enough to cover their daily expenses and repay her loans in weekly installments.

Rahila says that she would have been in a difficult position without WEE-RDP’s aid. “If we didn’t have this program in our village, we would have had to either take loans from neighbors or sell whatever we had at home for my husband’s treatment.”

She is grateful that the WEE-RDP came to their village and taught them that saving can create a huge difference in their lives. “We didn’t know much about saving at the beginning, we were spending all the earnings without giving any further thoughts about our future,” she says.

Kaliwal reaffirms WEE-RDP’s positive impact on the women by the project.  “We have been successful in creating a mentality among the women that saving 20 afghanis [26 cents] per week can [help] solve big problems in their lives in the future,” he says.

By encouraging women to participate in society and involving them in decision-making at the local level through SHGs, communities like Bagrami have been able to implement targeted, sustainable, and appropriate solutions to solve community issues.

WEE-RDP promotes women’s economic empowerment by encouraging and aiding financially sustainable and self-managed community institutions, which aim to improve household incomes, foster sustainable enterprises, and increase access to finance and markets. WEE-RDP will be implemented in 76 districts across all 34 provinces in Afghanistan by project’s end in June 2023.

WEE-RDP is funded by the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF), a multidonor trust fund managed by the World Bank on behalf of 34 donors, and International Development Association (IDA), the World Bank Group’s fund for the poorest countries.

*U.S. dollar equivalents are based on the exchange rate $1 = 77 afghanis (December 2020)