Women's Rights

Honey business allows Afghan women more freedom, respect

By Anne Chaon for AFP

Afghan Hazara woman beekeepers check their beehives on November 5 in Yakawlang District, Bamiyan Province. [WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP]

Afghan Hazara woman beekeepers check their beehives on November 5 in Yakawlang District, Bamiyan Province. [WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP]

YAKAWLANG, Afghanistan -- In Afghanistan's mountainous central Bamiyan Province, beekeeping complements its only other commercial crop, potatoes, and gives rural women the chance to become entrepreneurs, AFP reported.

"I make my money for me," Afghan beekeeper Jamila said, pointing emphatically at her chest. Her small honey-making business provides not only an income but a sense of pride.

The district of Yakawlang, about 100km from the famous giant Buddhas destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, sits about 2,600 metres above sea level. Residents are worried the arrival of winter will kill off their bees.

Bundled up tightly, they walk for more than an hour in the snow to fill their pots with honey and fix labels on them, though few know how to read.

Four beekeeping co-operatives have been set up here in recent years, backed by NGOs and foreign aid. Starting from scratch, they now employ about 400 people, half of them women, and produce 14 tonnes of honey a year.

'I'm my own boss'

Jamila got her start a year ago thanks to her neighbour, Siamui, a pioneer of the co-operative five years ago who gave her her first colony.

"It was in April and I remember that day perfectly. I was so happy: when I was done with my housework, I could spend the whole day watching my bees and how they work!" she said, making the other women around her laugh.

This co-operative has collected about 400kg of honey this year, according to its supervisor, Habitullah Noori. Each kilo fetches 800 AFN in Bamiyan and 1,000 in Kabul -- about US $15.

Jamila is a grandmother whose children have left the home; Siamui is raising eight of her own; Siddiqa, an orphan, takes care of four brothers and sisters.

Each of them maintains one to four hives on average -- the few thousand afghanis that they earn supplements their household incomes.

"I can pay for the bus when I want to visit my daughter," said Jamila. "I can buy her chocolate."

"I can buy notepads for the kids," adds Halima, who is in her twenties with two children.

For widowed Marzia, the honey is key to her survival. She hails from the village Qatakhan, 30 minutes from Yakawlang. It was an area overrun by the Taliban in early 2000, with many of its residents butchered after one commander instructed his charges "to kill everyone, even the dogs and chickens".

Her husband was pulled out of his mosque and shot dead on January 19 that year.

She now keeps four hives. "Earlier I started farming, sewing, reaping weeds in the mountains," she said. "My brother assisted me, but I was mostly on my own."

"Now with the honey, I can support my family, I am my own boss."

Farther down the hill, Fatima and her daughters, wearing beekepers' hats and visors, adjust the honeycombs in their beehives on the slopes of Qatakhan.

Her husband, Ahmad Hossaini, is helping by bringing the bees their sugar. "It's the first time we've worked together!" he smiles.

Elevated status for women

"There was no tradition of beekeeping here until the 1960s, when it was launched by King Zahir Shah," said Marc Jeanjean, a French beekeeper sent by AFD, the French aid agency, to help revive the sector.

"When we started working in 2005, there was nothing left, but things really began to take off in 2012, when the Ministry of Agriculture began pushing it," he said.

"When you invest $100 [6,659 AFN] in the first year, you will make $100 in the next," said Daud Mosavi, director of agricultural programmes in Bamiyan for New Zealand's foreign aid agency.

"When they get revenue for the first time, it helps to establish their position better in the household," especially girls who are otherwise seen as potential burdens on their families, said Sadia Fatimie, a consultant for international institutions.

Fifteen years after the fall of the Taliban regime, Afghanistan remains a harsh place for women: in 2016, only 10% of salaried female employees worked outside the agricultural sector, earning 30% less than their male counterparts.

In the countryside, they constitute an ignored, exhausted and poorly paid workforce.

"Only 34% of women in this country say they are allowed to spend the money that they earn," Fatimie said.

In Bamiyan, one of the country's least developed but most liberal regions, things are starting to change for women.

"It is widely accepted here by the society that women can be at the frontline to support the family," said provincial agricultural official Abdul Wahab Mohammadi. "It's increasing -- people see it as a success story and they are copying it."

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