Small Victories in Afghanistan

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Published: Sunday, March 21, 2004

The Taliban may be out of power, but the plight of Afghanistan’s women goes on. There are trappings of new freedoms — foremost among them a constitution that recognizes women’s rights — but in much of the countryside women and girls are still treated like chattel. As Carlotta Gall of The Times has described vividly, many young women find their lives so unbearable that they set themselves on fire to escape.

Amid this despair, it’s heartening to see individuals and groups finding innovative ways to help rebuild the lives of Afghan women, often one or two at a time.

Parwaz, which means ”take flight” in Dari, is one such effort. Directed by Katrin Fakiri, an enterprising Afghan-American who worked in Silicon Valley before 9/11, Parwaz has given loans of $100 or less to about 600 women who are trying to start very, very small businesses. That might mean buying a cart and fruit for the market or becoming a seamstress or turning the kitchen into a little bakery.

Like other groups working to teach women to read, or those rebuilding health facilities demolished by the Taliban, Parwaz has had to make some concessions to Afghan realities. Male relatives co-sign loan applications, as a way of making the men feel invested in the women’s businesses, instead of threatened by them. The interest rate is cleverly called an application fee — spread over the term of the loan, of course — to comply with the letter of Islamic law. There is also the awkward fact that some of these women are in the burka-sewing business.

Mirroring microfinance’s promising track record in other places, 98 percent of Parwaz’s clients make their payments on time and in full. It is but one example of the current homegrown and international efforts to improve the lives of Afghan women. Far more are needed.