Post U.S. Exit: Agriculture Can Power Women’s Growth in Afghanistan

Author: Hannah Davin, Research Intern (Spring 2021), Center for Strategic and International Studies

Photo: WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images

On April 14, President Biden announced that the U.S. would begin a sequential withdrawal of all troops from Afghanistan. The original U.S. – Taliban Peace Deal, signed in February 2020 under the Trump administration, called for a complete and immediate U.S. military exit by May 1. To uphold the original agreement while achieving full withdrawal of the remaining 3,500 troops in Afghanistan by the Biden administration’s target date of September 11, the administration will begin the withdrawal process on May 1. In coordination with the U.S. military, NATO has also announced foreign troops under its command will complete their full withdrawal by September 11. 

While Biden’s decision to leave Afghanistan may signal ending the “forever war,” there are a growing number of concerns that a final withdrawal will allow the Taliban and other insurgent groups to expand their jurisdiction and hinder the country’s significant political and economic gains. Furthermore, there are concerns that the exit of foreign troops will be a catalyst for notable regressions in human rights, specifically those for women and girls. Women’s rights in Afghanistan have improved substantially over the last two decades. Even so, many believe that the retreat of the U.S. military could negatively impact women’s employment rates, education, and healthcare outcomes. As the U.S. prepares to leave Afghanistan, the Biden administration should take measures to ensure stability and prevent insurgent groups from ascending to power. Policy initiatives that promote women’s rights and participation in the economy would be instrumental in this regard, primarily in the sector that employs a large majority of the nation’s workers: agriculture. Ideally, this would take the form of more opportunities and provisions for women in the sector.

Currently, women who work in Afghanistan’s agriculture sector face numerous challenges. While approximately 42.50 percent of Afghanistan’s population is employed within the sector, it is Afghan women that power its broad-based success. According to the World Bank, in 2019, 64.96 percent of those employed in agriculture were women compared to only 36.60 percent of men. Women’s main activities in the agriculture sector typically involve unpaid, arduous labor such as weeding, watering, and harvesting. Women are also primarily responsible for breeding livestock and for a majority of the tasks related to animal caretaking and upkeep. While women are responsible for a majority of the sector’s makeup and production activities, they are seldom able to participate in market ventures such as the buying and selling of produce and seeds. These positions are disproportionally reserved for men. This suggests that men hold a majority of the power in the sector and typically oversee the relationship between the household and the market.

Due to a lack of both education and funding, access to agricultural capital and land for women with entrepreneurial or self-sustaining ambitions remain largely unattainable in Afghanistan. Women in Afghanistan typically do not have access to land rights, even if they have inherited land or it has been legally allocated to them. When women are successfully able to own land and run farms, unfortunately their crop yields are 20 to 30 percent lower than those of farms run by men.

Providing equitable agricultural opportunities for women in Afghanistan has the potential to create new opportunities for women while it boosts GDP and rates of employment and improves the country’s human rights record. However, a hasty U.S. departure coupled with a potential expansion of Taliban control will likely make it more difficult to provide opportunities for women that enable them to make social and economic gains. To protect and expand the rights of women and girls and advocate for their participation in the economy, the Biden administration should look to create opportunities through policies and programs within the agricultural sector as it implements a more gradual withdrawal.

Women’s empowerment in agriculture starts with a restructuring of government policy. Strong laws and policies designed to ensure that women are allowed to contribute to the economy and to validate their status and rights as workers will be essential first steps. In Afghanistan’s agriculture sector, four out of every five female rural workers are considered “unpaid family workers”, compared to only one in five men. It is essential that women participate in local markets and receive agricultural training. Women’s economic opportunities must be expanded through increased access to value chains and regional and national production networks.

Much of women’s economic participation in agriculture remains within Afghanistan’s informal economy as women continue to remain “economically engaged but not economically empowered.” The provision of agricultural skills and marketing training must be prioritized for both women and youth. This could be achieved by providing agricultural courses that are sensitive to the obstacles women face every day, both in Afghanistan’s economy and within the sector itself. It is also evident that women should have the opportunity to own land and run their own farms. Achieving this goal will require removing barriers that do not allow women to obtain personal identity information, as a lack of documentation further restricts their rights to secure land and property.

Incorporating sustainable agricultural practices into Afghanistan also has the opportunity to provide economic sustenance for women. Targeted agricultural courses can teach sustainable farming practices including new planting techniques, tree disease prevention, and proper irrigation methods. In Afghanistan, 30 to 60 percent of harvested fruits and vegetables are lost due to insufficient transportation and temperature control. This can be addressed with solar food dryers which are capable of saving 50 to 70 kilograms of produce in three to five days on a small plot of land. Other agricultural initiatives, such as micro-greenhouses, may be able to reduce the unemployment rates of women during the agricultural off season. For example, in the past, unemployment rates in Afghanistan have increased to 44 percent in the winter up from 20 percent during the summer in rural areas.  Micro-greenhouses provide a way to empower women by providing a source of income during the winter months, as women can cultivate this produce for market as well as for their own consumption.

It is also important for development agencies to continue their work on projects that empower the women already employed in Afghanistan’s agricultural sector. The Afghanistan Rural Enterprise Development Program (AREDP) and the National Horticulture and Livestock Project (NHLP) are two examples of development projects benefitting Afghanistan’s agriculture industry. The AREDP in particular establishes small-scale enterprises in six districts in the Parwan Province. Of the 868 savings groups established by the program, 488 were for women, enabling them to run small enterprises. Furthermore, the NHLP project has helped over 390,000 male and female farmers. The project focuses on improving access to technology and providing trainings on best agricultural production practices, post-production practices, and how to gauge markets.

As U.S. and NATO troops leave Afghanistan, protecting the rights of women and girls is of paramount importance. Facilitating women’s participation in the agriculture industry, through strong government policies and sustainable agricultural initiatives, has the potential to be an effective means of addressing this priority. Providing opportunities and making space for women in Afghanistan’s agriculture sector opens new doors for economic opportunity, trade, and human rights outcomes. Through an emphasis on stronger sectoral engagement, better access to markets, and the implementation of sustainable agriculture practices and programs, steps can be taken towards sustaining the country’s agricultural sector and furthering gender equality in Afghanistan after the departure of foreign troops and for years to come.

Hannah Davin is a Research Intern for the Project on Prosperity and Development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a DC-based think tank. She is a graduate of the University of Massachusetts Amherst where she studied Environmental Science and Public Health. She has previously worked for WE ACT for Environmental Justice and the U.S. House of Representatives.

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