Women4Women: Aid Worker's Insight Into Afghanistan

Challiss McDonough, a Public Information Officer based in Kabul, talks with girls at a school in rural Afghanistan. Copyright: WFP/Afghanistan

New possibilities are opening up for women in Afghanistan as they start to take a bigger part in the country’s economic life. Challiss McDonough, a WFP staffer in Kabul, tells WFP.org how watching this transformation has helped to offset the challenges she’s faced as a woman working there. Watch video

What are conditions like for women in Afghanistan, and what it’s like for you, a woman, to work there?
Well, challenging and difficult are certainly two words that well describe life for many—if not most women—in Afghanistan. It’s been very difficult in the past for women to get an education and, while that’s beginning to change, it’s happening faster in some areas than in others. This is a country where poverty is extreme and widespread, and that has a disproportional impact on the lives of women. 

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Give me an example of what a typical day is like for Afghan women in rural communities.
Rural women do a lot of the farm work in addition to the housework, so a lot of their day will be spent weeding, harvesting or irrigating crops alongside—or in place of—the men. About 80 percent of Afghan families are dependent on agriculture for a living, but it’s not usually their only source of income. A lot of men also do casual labour and often have to travel in order to find work, so they’ll leave the women behind to hold down the fort while they’re away.

What kind of problems does that create?
In some areas, it’s culturally unacceptable for women to leave the house by themselves. So if they have a medical emergency or need to get to the market and there isn’t a male relative who can escort them, they’re unable to do the things that they need to do in order to support their families. If they have a son, sometimes he can serve as her escort, but unmarried women without sons have a very difficult time—widows in particular—and this is a country that’s seen thirty years of conflict.

So what kind of situations is WFP involved in? Tell us a little bit about our work there.
Our core mission in Afghanistan is helping people in emergency situations like conflict and natural disasters. There are also recovery activities to help communities become less dependent on food aid. One of my favourite projects, in fact, trains women with marketable skills like sewing, making pickled foods that they can sell and in some cases bee keeping—all things they can do to boost their families’ income.

How do men respond to women taking on these kinds of jobs?
Well the jobs are designed to be culturally appropriate. Occasionally there is resistance to the idea, but the food rations that families receive as part of the programme give men an incentive to let women do the training. Once they start seeing an economic return, men are usually won over by the results of the programme.

Tell me a little more about your experience as a humanitarian worker. What’s it like for you, as a woman, to work in Afghanistan?
It’s fascinating. I have never regretted going there for a minute. I think it is the most important work I have ever done. It is however extremely challenging and there are a lot of day-to-day things, like taking a walk down the street by myself, that I simply cannot do.

So how do you get around--who accompanies you?
Usually, if I need to go shopping, for example, I’ll get one of my male colleagues to go with me. I have a couple of colleagues who are pretty good sports and don’t mind coming along to the market with me if I need to buy clothes or food. They understand that I’m more restricted than they are. They can go around the corner to the grocery store if they want to, but I can’t.

Are there any particular stories of women that stand out in your mind?
I met one family in particular who were under a lot of strain economically and the husband was taking out his frustrations on his wife. She was enrolled in the programme I mentioned before and was learning sewing skills which she used to start making children’s clothes to sell at the local market. She told me that her husband had a newfound respect for her after seeing that she was able to start contributing to their income, and that underlying tension in the family eased as their situation improved.

Do you think that situations like that are becoming more common now than before?

Yes. I’ve met many women involved in our programmes who had realised their potential and started taking a greater role in their communities and asking for more. They’d seen what was possible and said “alright, next we want sewing machines and then literacy courses,” which would have been unthinkable five or ten years ago.

AUDIO

Listen to the complete interview