Former addicts stay clean at Kabul soap factory

Salaam Times and AFP


Afghan women sort and package bars of soap at an organic skin care company in Kabul on October 8, 2019. [Wakil Kohsar/AFP]

KABUL -- A young Afghan mother of seven sits on a red woollen rug alongside four other women who are slicing huge slabs of handmade, flowery soap into smaller bars.

She is one of about 20 female employees -- many of them recovering drug addicts -- working part time on an organic farm in Kabul, where they grow flowers and plants to turn into sweet-smelling soaps and creams.

The venture can be a lifeline in a patriarchal country that grows roughly 90% of the world's illicit opium. Millions of Afghans struggle with drug addiction, and woman addicts face particular discrimination.

"I am happy that I am working here because it's all women. There are no men here," said the mother, who requested anonymity, as she sat on the mini production line, tying ribbons around newly bagged soaps made from a type of charcoal that is said to have special health benefits.


An Afghan woman sorts through bars of soap at an organic skin care company in Kabul on October 8, 2019. The factory helps recovering drug addicts earn a dignified living for their families. [Wakil Kohsar/AFP]

Hiring recovering drug addicts

The business is the creation of local entrepreneur Marghuba Safi, who started making soaps and creams in her kitchen in 2016. Friends and family reacted so well to the products that she launched a full-time business with the help of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

The agency paid for Safi to visit India, where woman-owned ventures are commonplace, to seek inspiration from small businesses.

"A lot of women over there are working from their homes, and I visited women making their own businesses," said Safi, 40.

"When I came back, I decided to make my business a little wider," she said.

Her large farm -- which grows corn, peppers, aloe, marigolds and other plants -- is hidden behind a nondescript metal gate on the outskirts of Kabul.

The only condition for UNODC's support was that Safi hired recovering woman drug addicts.

"When I became sad, I went to my neighbour's home and then we ate something," said the young mother, explaining how she got hooked.

"I did not know what it was, but it made me relaxed," she said. "After that they took me to the hospital then Marghuba came and taught us how to make soaps and helped us."

A dignified alternative

Afghanistan had about three million drug addicts in 2015, a large proportion of the country's estimated 35 million inhabitants, according to a comprehensive survey carried out that year.

About 20% are women, and the rate of addiction has only gone up over the past four years, said Anubha Sood, a senior officer with UNODC's "Alternative Livelihoods and Counter Narcotics" programme.

"The rate [of addiction] has increased much, much more among women and children in the past few years," she said.

The go-to drug is opium -- whether in smoked or in tablet form -- and women are sometimes kicked out of their homes as a punishment for seeking help.

"A lot of women whom we work with, once they undergo treatment in the drug treatment centre, there is a stigma attached and a lot of families do not accept them back," Sood said.

If a woman "is able to stand on her own feet and is able to support herself and her children, this is a big moral boost for herself and she can earn a living in a very dignified manner", Sood said.

The mother on the production line, aged 30, said she was paid about $2 (157 AFN) for a half-day's work -- a small but meaningful sum in a country where more than half the population lives below the poverty line of $1.90 (149 AFN) a day.

"When I am bringing money to the house, I feel proud that I am also taking part in the economy of my family," she said.

The UNODC is helping other Afghan women in the provinces through "alternative development" projects such as small-scale vegetable or poultry farms that are easy to manage in a country where women were systematically denied an education under the Taliban and where girls' access to schooling is still limited, Sood said.

Such projects are "simpler and easier for women to handle. They don’t have to venture out that much, it can be run from the household itself and they can sell the product at the [local] market," she said.

Narcotics fuelling terrorism, violence

Opium often comes as a product of the Taliban and other terrorists, who use the profits earned from the trafficking of illicit narcotics to fund their violent activities.

In some instances, the militants have forced farmers to grow poppies and encouraged addicts to purchase drugs.

"The Taliban asked me to grow poppy on my land despite my telling them that I didn't want to cultivate an illicit crop -- but they forced me to do so," Sayed ul-Rahm Ghanizada, 48, a farmer in Naeem Jan village of Dasht-i-Archi District, Kunduz Province, said in May.

Meanwhile, a spate of recent assassinations of Afghan Taliban leaders in Pakistan is said to be linked to the militants' drug smuggling and extortion.

On August 16, members of the High Council of the Islamic Emirate, a Taliban splinter group, attacked a mosque in Kuchlak, Pakistan, near Quetta, killing four people, including the brother of the Taliban's supreme commander, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada.

The following day, militants killed Mullah Muhammad Azam Akhund, another key Taliban leader and a close ally of Haibatullah, in Killi Qasim of Kuchlak.

The Taliban earn more than $600 million (46.8 billion AFN) from poppy cultivation and the drug business in Afghanistan per year, a senior Pakistani intelligence official based in Rawalpindi said on the condition of anonymity in October.

The drugs cultivated in Afghanistan reach the international market mainly via illegal routes in Pakistan and Iran, he said.

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