KUNDUZ -- A number of Afghan women are continuing to work at a market that was created for women in Mazar-e-Sharif, Balkh province.
The Rabia Balkhi market was established in 2011 with the goal of empowering women and creating entrepreneurship opportunities.
Situated in the southern part of the city, the market -- and its 60 woman-owned shops -- is still functional following the collapse of the previous government last August.
Girls and women have suffered a curtailment of their rights since August.
Under the previous government, more than 27% of civil servants were women. Now, they have been told to stay home until further notice, and women's right to work remains in question.
The new government also prohibits girls from attending school after sixth grade.
Despite reduced activity at the market, women are still coming to work in the face of adversity.
Businesses that were thriving at the market before August are now seeing slower sales, said Habiba Amini, director of the Rabia Balkhi market.
"There are 60 shops altogether in this market for women. Previously about five women worked in each shop, and they were conducting seminars, exhibitions and programmes," Amini told Salaam Times.
Now, one or two women work in each shop, she said.
The market played a vital role in empowering women's entrepreneurship capacity and has helped them become economically self-sufficient and contribute to their household economy, she added.
"There was no market for women in Mazar-e-Sharif in the past ... because women culturally were not allowed to do business with men," Shafiqa Timori, a shopkeeper at the market, told Salaam Times.
"Now that there is a designated market for women, we can discuss business challenges, share our experiences and find solution to the problems," Timori said.
The market is also allowing women to provide for the families amid a growing humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan.
Halima Faqiri, a saleswoman at the market who has worked since 2017, said that she can earn enough to support her family and pay for her children's school expenses.
She prepares and sells homemade bread, samosas, bolani and other various kinds of food in her shop.
"I am so grateful to Allah Almighty that my business is running. I can earn about 600 AFN ($5.71) daily, and my income satisfies my family needs," she said.
A number of women who have lost their husbands are among those working in the market.
Mohnisa, 42, who lost her husband in a traffic accident in Mazar-e-Sharif city eight years ago, said that she has economically become self-sufficient after confronting many difficulties and challenges.
"I struggled so hard for many years and endured exorbitant expenses, and my efforts have finally paid off. I am so happy that I can now support my family," she told Salaam Times.
Her shop was closed for a few days in August but now is open for business, said Mohnisa.
Preventing women from working not only increases economic challenges in Afghanistan but drives up poverty amongst households across the country, Ziauddin Bashardost, a resident of Mazar-e-Sharif, told Salaam Times.
If women and girls are allowed to work in different sectors as they did in the past, they will be able to improve their economic situation and help reduce poverty at the household level, he said.
"If women gain the opportunity to work in any sector, they can make a difference," he added.
"Balkh women have proved that they are ready to work outside their homes under any circumstances," said Nafisa Majidi, who sells handicrafts in the market.
Majidi urged the international community to continue supporting Afghan women and not to let the gains of 2001–2021 to fade away.
By participating in various activities over the past 20 years, women have proved themselves and their capabilities, said Nasrin Habibi, a women's rights activist in Kunduz.
"Women and girls account for half of society, and if they are deprived of work, it means half of the society is being diluted," she added.
"Women, like men, have studied and made progress over the past two decades. Therefore, educated women and girls must be provided with the opportunity to work outside their homes in government offices and the private sector," Habibi said.
She called on the authorities to cease all restrictions on women and to allow them to participate in society the same way as men.
Women's participation in handicrafts and other businesses is still flourishing in the province, and authorities must provide more opportunities for the economic and business growth of female entrepreneurs, said Mohammad Hassan Ansari, deputy chairman of the Balkh Chamber of Commerce and Industry, a private organisation.
"Women have played a crucial role in many sectors, specially in the production of carpet, handicrafts and food. Moreover, there are women who have business licences, and some of them even have exported their products," he said.