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A Formidable Thing: Women’s Groups in Mazar

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With years of experience living and working in Afghanistan, Phil Sparrow doubted that women’s Self-Help Groups could cross the cultural familial bounds and succeed in this context. Happy to be proven wrong, he visited groups which are not only flourishing, but seeking broader social change.

Prior to my visit to Mazar-i-Sharif in Northern Afghanistan, I had lived in Mazar for some years under the Taliban, as a TEAR Fieldworker, and the chance to visit again and reconnect with some old friends and see some new work was one I took up with glee. That’s right, I was gleeful, and you don’t often hear that in connection with visiting anywhere in Afghanistan.

Well, Mazar was cold. Far colder than Kabul, and the snow was icy hard on the ground. But I was still gleeful. One of our partners in Afghanistan is Operation Mercy, and they work in two main areas – Self-Help Groups (SHGs), and Birth Life Saving Skills (or BLiSS, as it is known). I remember when the SHG approach was first talked about in Afghanistan – I was disbelieving. I couldn’t see how, in a country as divided, as troubled and as parochial as Afghanistan, it would ever work.

A Formidable Thing - Womens Groups In Mazar
These children are helping out in their family potato pancake business. A member of a women’s SHG, their mother was able to start the business with credit from the group. She cooks, and their father does the sales. The business has transformed the family.

In Afghanistan, in many parts of the country, women rarely even leave the street where they are born. They might go up the alleyway, for a wedding, or to the mosque for a funeral, or to visit a sister-in-law next door, but by and large, women do not interact with strangers, and strangers are defined as anyone who is not family. You are either faamil – family, or begaanah – stranger. There isn’t really an in-between. There are, of course, many exceptions, especially with more well-off families or those who are educated; but the educated well-off are not the target population of women’s SHGs.

I knew the theory of how these groups work (further explored in the following article), and I knew how little trust exists with people who are begaanah in Afghanistan, and hence my doubt that it would ever work.

But it does. A few years ago, I helped evaluate this project, and it was astonishing and wonderful. It was quite beautiful to see the transformations that were taking place: it was visible. Where the SHGs had been operating for a while, streets were paved, drains were covered, and kids were in school. Women had taken loans, and either started tiny businesses, or provided the capital to their husbands, who had used the money to augment their own work, and then they had repaid the loans, and then done it all again, and the economic and social benefits were obvious and compelling. That made me feel gleeful too.

So the next stage in the whole journey is to get representatives from 15 or so groups, and form clusters. When you have 10 or so clusters, you form a Federation, and a Federation can represent around 3000 women. That much female energy is a formidable thing.

And that was just what I encountered in Mazar on that cold morning. I walked to a Cluster Association meeting in a newish suburb. It was amazing even that the women were prepared to have a man – a strange foreign man – present, and I checked many times with the facilitators that I wasn’t going to get anyone in trouble. I need not have bothered. The animated and engaged women who were meeting that morning barely gave me a second glance. They had bigger issues on their mind.

The issue under discussion was how to address changes in policy and fee structure at the local schools. That might sound pretty dry, but it mattered to these women: if they had to pay more to the schools for their sons’ and daughters’ education, they wanted to know why, and what they were going to get for it.

I listened as the discussion rocketed around the room. The ideas flew about like parrots on a peach tree. “March on the Governor’s office!” said one woman. “No, we must go to the schools!”; “We have to find out more. Is this a national policy, or just local? Who else is affected?”; “Who will do the research?”; “Me! I will!”; “I say we go to the school and demand answers!”; “Settle down, sister! If we want to be taken seriously, we have to know what is going on!”

It was inspiring, and slightly alarming. The idea of this animated group of women charging down to the school, demanding answers made me feel sorry for the poor principal. But, as they rightly realised, for advocacy to work it has to be based on facts. And all that, taken together, was what made me the most gleeful of all: that these women were not just reacting, but responding, with passion and purpose. They’d brought that same energy to other issues in their community – electricity supply, street safety, water, and more. And that energy showed no signs of abating.

The achievements of the women in Operation Mercy’s SHGs are many. Of course, there are many setbacks, and some ideas are half-baked and others are shot down by officials and bureaucrats before they even get out of the hangar, let alone on the runway. But the women are undaunted. In Afghanistan, that is saying a lot.

Phil Sparrow is a former TEAR Program Officer for Afghanistan, and a former TEAR Fieldworker.

Related projects have received support from the Australian Government through the Australian NGO Cooperation Program (ANCP).