Tetra Tech’s Margaret Chandler, Tetra Tech communications specialist, and Lida Hedayat, former chief of party and project manager for the for U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Promote Women’s Leadership Development (WLD) project, analyze how systemic change can be cultivated in Afghanistan. All opinions expressed in this post are the authors' own.

This post originally ran on Devex.

Like the global trend, Afghan women compose just 36 percent of the national workforce. Even with underutilized female workers, recent data from the Afghanistan Women Chamber of Commerce and Industry (AWCCI) suggests female entrepreneurs have created 77,000 jobs for Afghans by investing an estimated USD$77 million in their businesses.

AWCCI also found that Afghan women are asking for training programs to teach them the skills to start, run, and grow businesses. Increased access to economic opportunities can empower Afghan women to take their rightful place as changemakers in their society.

Women’s empowerment is crucial for transformational economic growth on a global scale. AWCCI data also suggests women’s empowerment leads to more peaceful and economically stable livelihoods, while scaling a multifaceted approach to build the capacity of Afghan women does the same.

However, against the backdrop of a crucial peace negotiation and the recent presidential election, women’s empowerment and economic stability in Afghanistan are severely threatened. Cultivating systemic change requires a long-term vision.

The Multifaceted Approach

To ensure increased access to economic opportunities for Afghan women and the success of future entrepreneurs in the face of severe legal, regulatory, and cultural barriers, Tetra Tech’s gender and governance experts believe this can be achieved through education, training, and mentorship. Based on 18 years of on-the-ground experience, we have three core recommendations:

1. Provide in-depth training on legal rights

An in-depth awareness of basic women’s legal rights is crucial for women to understand legal challenges, obligations, rules, and regulations in order to help them avoid consequences that might negatively impact their businesses. Additionally, women need the skills to identify options and solutions to overcome legal barriers, maintaining successful business models.

2. Equip women and girls with the skills necessary for effective workforce development

Workforce development to match the market demand is a preliminary step for empowerment. Preparing women and girls for management and leadership positions enables them to make policy decisions, helping them take their rightful seat at the table as changemakers.

3. Change behavior through family and community engagement

Community-wide discourse is necessary to begin changing societal ideologies and creating a network of male and family allies. It is crucial for male counterparts to see and hear firsthand the impactful contributions women make when they are included in conversations.

The impact of this multiprong approach allows Afghans to be heard across the social and political spectrum and ensures efforts are locally led and include women, men, and youth for maximum sustainability.

USAID’s Promote Women’s Leadership Development Program

Graduating more than 30,000 participants, WLD’s two core curricula—Jawana, tailored for University graduates, and Royesh Life and Work Skills, incorporated as a pilot into public high schools—focused on activities tailored to Tetra Tech’s three core recommendations necessary for successful implementation of women’s empowerment programs in Afghanistan.

These are the lessons we learned during implementation:

1. Fostering an environment that provides practical and theoretical exercises can provide women with a deeper understanding of legal frameworks.

2. Providing women an avenue to learn skills and develop networks necessary to become future leaders in civil society, government, and business is crucial for economic empowerment. These capacity-building activities improved management and leadership skills to effectively start a business and run it successfully.

3. Engaging with families and communities through a grassroots approach of formal and informal discussions can bring about societal change by empowering women and having men as allies.

The capstone of Jawana’s curriculum was an entrepreneurial-focused project, designed and implemented by each student. Drawing on the skills learned throughout the three-month program, students were encouraged to target issues directly impacting their communities, aimed to encourage participation and increase engagement.

Women’s Leadership Development

Designing women’s empowerment programs around this approach has started to make incremental changes among Afghan women and society.

Over the past five years, we have worked directly with Afghan women and girls to implement the USAID-funded Women’s Leadership Development project, a core component of the Promote program.

Preparing women to fight for their voices means strengthening their leadership skills to develop, articulate, and defend their vision of peace and development while empowering them to build strong networks of women across provincial, ethnic, and religious lines. However, community and societal systems need to be developed and strengthened to accommodate women as well, a component of empowering women that is often overlooked.

To address this issue at its source, Afghanistan must develop inclusive practices that create safe spaces for women to actively participate in and engage with society. Furthermore, institutions need to be strengthened and prepared to accommodate women for meaningful participation. This requires transforming society’s perception of the need for women’s empowerment and recognizing the immeasurable contributions they can make. Tetra Tech believes education is the first step to changing mindsets and empowering women.

Needs-Based Scholarship Program

In addition to the Jawana and Royesh curricula, WLD managed a needs-based scholarship (NBS) program. Successful applicants received three months of training in one of four technical subject areas: computer skills, English language skills, office management skills, and basic health care skills. These opportunities enabled program participants to advance their technical skills and build self-confidence. Furthermore, NBS facilitated partnerships to leverage public and private sector resources, supporting program graduates as they entered the workforce and sought larger professional networks.

What Women’s Empowerment in Afghanistan Means For Us

Composing 39 percent of the global workforce, women are still not receiving equal economic opportunities as men. These gaps, impacting nearly half of the global population, restrict workforce potential and consequently limit economic growth. A McKinsey Global Institute report found that the global gross domestic product could increase up to USD$28 trillion by 2025 if men and women experience an equal playing field.

Continuing to address the gender gap and fight for women’s economic empowerment requires a long-term vision, particularly in a complex and challenging environment like Afghanistan. This multifaceted approach, scaled for WLD, has produced incremental changes among Afghan women and society as a result of Tetra Tech’s experience on the ground. Leveraging local partners and institutions ensures the sustainability of the progress we have made, and we work hard every day promoting women’s leadership through market-driven courses because we maintain an optimistic vision of a peaceful Afghanistan that includes all vulnerable and marginalized people.

The progress Afghanistan has made toward women’s empowerment contributes to a stronger global community, encourages us all to continue to fight for equal economic opportunities, and strives for a more peaceful future. The momentum can’t stop now.

About the Author

Margaret Chandler

Margaret Chandler is an international development communications specialist at Tetra Tech. During its final year, she worked with the USAID Promote Women’s Leadership Development project team in Kabul and spent time with many program participants. Chandler’s experience working with gender-related issues on college campuses and with U.S. high school students led her into approaching women’s empowerment through education and skill development.

About the Author

Lida Hedayat

Lida Hedayat is a versatile international development manager and gender expert with 16 years of experience on USAID projects and with nongovernmental organizations. Hedayat served as chief of party and project manager for the for USAID’s Women’s Leadership Development project.