KABUL -- The number of women entrepreneurs in Afghanistan is steadily rising with the support of a number of government initiatives, and Afghan officials are looking to increase those gains with additional support programmes.
Recognising the importance of encouraging female entrepreneurship for the economy, the Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce and Industries (ACCI) launched in October an independent body for Afghan women -- the Afghanistan Women Chamber of Commerce and Industry (AWCCI).
"Nearly 300 Afghan women are officially registered with the Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce and Industry," ACCI Deputy Director Khan Jan Alokozay told Salaam Times. "Unofficially, however, their number may reach to more than 2,000 women, a majority of whom have launched small and medium size businesses."
Afghanistan's First Lady Rula Ghani also has several programmes in place to develop the practical and theoretical capabilities of businesswomen, he said.
As part of those efforts, Rula Ghani inaugurated an exhibition of handicrafts made by women from Afghanistan and Turkmenistan during the 7th Regional Economic Co-operation Conference on Afghanistan in Ashgabat on November 14.
Women's economic empowerment was one of the main objectives of the meeting.
"The more security improves and the more the government, the international community and the public support for businesswomen increases, the more encouragement they receive, which in turn paves the way for this societal class to grow," Alokozay said.
Defying the Taliban
Kabul businesswoman Layla Omar Stanekzai started her business activities secretly during the Taliban regime. For the past several years, she has been selling handicrafts made by rural Afghan women at her shop in Kabul's Women's Garden.
The garden was destroyed during the Afghan civil war, and women and girls were forbidden to enter it during the restrictive Taliban era. Reopened in November 2010, the Women's Garden now hosts a gym, educational classes, vocational training, shops and provides a safe place for women to socialise.
"At the time of the Taliban, I started working on creating a training course for English language and handicrafts in Kabul," Layla told Salaam Times.
"Despite the fact that women's education was prohibited [during the Taliban regime], I secretly taught English and handicrafts, such as beadwork, embroidery, sewing and other handicraft arts to Afghan girls and women."
"I was able to raise a capital of more than 500,000 AFN and to economically support my family," she said, adding that she has helped 500 other Afghan women to become economically independent.
These women first purchase raw materials from the market and produce their handicrafts. They then sell the products to Layla, who in turn sells them at her shop.
Layla urged the government to provide women entrepreneurs with further assistance and better security in order to strengthen Afghanistan's economy.
Call for more support
Nasima Mawlazada, another businesswoman, also owns a shop in the Women's Garden. She said she buys high quality handmade clothing from more than 30 Afghan women and then sells the products to Afghan and foreign customers.
"My efforts worked as a role model for many Afghan girls and women," she told Salaam Times, adding that she has provided job opportunities for many of the female handicraft artists that she works with. "Some of them have managed to make themselves economically independent, as I did."
"Every day, Afghan women work to achieve self-sufficiency, and with more support, their numbers will further increase," she said. "My requests from the government are to provide security, to hold exhibitions, to create suitable markets and to support Afghan women's small businesses."
Kabul resident Karima Hosseini said she enjoys going to Women's Garden to purchase Afghan products.
"The quality of Afghan products is excellent and they are priced reasonably," she told Salaam Times. "Moreover, the purchase of every Afghan-made product is a step towards supporting Afghan women."
She also called on "the Afghan government and supporters of Afghanistan to support women entrepreneurs so that all Afghan women can become independent".