KUNDUZ -- A government programme is giving thousands of women in northeastern Afghanistan a chance to plant the seeds for a better life.
More than 5,000 women in the provinces of Kunduz, Takhar, Baghlan and Badakhshan have received greenhouses by the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock so that they can grow their own vegetables.
Since the programme was introduced in April this year, vegetable production has increased in the four provinces as women take advantage of the initiative to bring in income by selling their produce as well as provide nutritional food for their families.
"The goal of implementing these projects is to expand and strengthen the livelihoods of families in addition to improving food security, increasing vegetable production, enhancing overall productivity and lowering [agricultural] imports," said Akbar Rustami, a spokesman for the Ministry of Agriculture.
"The Ministry of Agriculture is trying to improve the farm economy, especially for women who are interested in engaging in agriculture" through such projects, he added.
The greenhouses cost 65,000 AFN ($830) each, Rustami said.
The programme is helping Afghan women help themselves and their families, said Muhammad Ghulam Mullahkhail, an adviser to the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock.
These greenhouses "have now become good sources of income for them", he said.
"The main goal in establishing kitchen gardens and greenhouses is to increase women's social engagement, reduce malnutrition and make vegetables available in winter and summer," Mullahkhail added.
"This programme also provides training for women in the four provinces in establishing and maintaining kitchen gardens," he said. "Women sell their products from the kitchen gardens in local markets and use the income to cover their family expenses."
Strengthening family finances
Women in the initiative say they are busy producing and selling vegetables and that the programme is bringing positive changes to their families' financial situations.
"I can financially support and feed my family members through vegetable production," said Feroza, a 28-year-old resident of Kima village, Aliabad District, Kunduz Province, who goes by one name.
"With the money I earn from selling vegetables, I can purchase school supplies such as books, notepads, pens and pencils for my children and support my husband," she said.
Sediqa Rahimi, 35, a resident of Kunduz city and mother of four children, sells her greenhouse's vegetables through a store run by her husband, who has a disability.
She said that she had earned 40,000 AFN ($500) in the past four months.
"In the past, I worked in other people's houses from which I had a very small income," she said. "But now, my finances are improving day by day."
She has received technical and practical training offered by the programme to help her in planting, growing and harvesting her vegetables, added Rahimi.
The greenhouse project has played a large role in improving the livelihood and family situation of Rahima, 39, a resident of Takhar Province.
"I was able to earn 4,000 AFN ($50) from selling just one round of harvest from my greenhouse," said Rahima.
"My husband died five years ago, and I went through a lot of grief and misery," she added. "I was shocked and wondered what would happen with my life."
"I had to cook for others and wash their clothes [to earn money and] feed my three children, and that was a tough thing to do. Now I have hope that my children and I will live a [good] life as I am able to earn a decent income from producing vegetables," Rahima said.
Rahima called on other women, especially those living in villages, to join the programme so that they can earn money and feed their families more-nutritious food.
Arifa Aslami, 30, an agricultural analyst in Badakhshan Province, sees large potential in the sale of crops grown by women in the greenhouse initiative.
"I ask authorities at the Ministry of Agriculture, and especially at the local government level, to put efforts into marketing the women's produce," she said.
"Women in various provinces farm many crops in a variety of areas -- their produce can even compete with foreign produce," Aslami added. "But as they don't have access to markets, their produce is not sold" before it spoils.
The ministry is planning to ship women's harvests to markets with the help of producers' associations in the provinces, said Rustami.
"As the Ministry of Agriculture has established greenhouses to strengthen the women's economy in various provinces, likewise it has rolled out initiatives to market women's agricultural produce," he said.
"The Ministry of Agriculture has established agriculture associations for producers," he added. "Adding domestic produce, such as vegetables and fresh fruit, to the security forces' menu is part of the government's efforts to support domestic farming."
"We encourage entrepreneurs and businesspeople to help women by purchasing their agricultural produce before it can spoil," said Fareshta Joinda, a member of the National Horticulture and Livestock Programme's gender team.
Life under the Taliban regime
In contrast to life under the Taliban's rule, Afghan women consider such programmes offered by the government a positive step in providing suitable opportunities for themselves and their children.
While the Taliban did not allow women to work outside their homes and violated their other rights under various pretexts, the future now is much brighter, they say.
"During the Taliban's rule, women didn't have the right to an education," said Habiba Gulistani, a women's rights activist in Kunduz Province. "They couldn't work in the civil service or leave home without a chaperone. Women were denied most of their liberties."
"But today's women are not like those at that time," Gulistani said. "They work in the social, cultural, political and economic sectors, and they have had considerable achievements in the past 19 years. Today is hugely different from the Taliban era, and Afghan women never want to return to that time and lose their achievements."
Life for women has drastically improved since the militants were chased from power, agreed Samira Qayoumzada, 36, a residents of Kunduz city who was in the 10th grade when the Taliban took over Kunduz.
"Before the Taliban came to power, I was a student at Fatema-tul-Zahra Girls' School in Kunduz city, but when the Taliban came, I was deprived of going to school," she said.
"At that time, I sometimes thought my youth -- the best period of my life -- was passing me by as I was confined to my home," she added. "I think the Taliban's time was the worst and darkest period of my life."