Afghanistan’s turbulent recent history has redefined the nation’s economic needs and cultural perspectives. Years of broadcasts of the increasingly complicated situation read markedly incompatible with one deliciously simple solution: enable Afghan women to farm honey.
In last year’s ‘Survey of the Afghan People’ by the Asia Foundation, 23 percent of the nearly 13,000 surveyed cited unemployment as the greatest challenge facing Afghan women today. Coming from a culture which has historically frowned upon women working outside the home, this is a significant change of tune.
In fact, 65.5 percent of men surveyed last year agreed that women can and should contribute to the household income. These opinions accompany a significant rise in the number of women voters, teachers, and low-level government employees, and even a few female elected officials. The evolving role of women in Afghanistan’s political and economic spheres, while apparent in urban areas, has been rather subtle in rural regions. However, rural Afghan women have managed to claim a new sense of economic agency through beekeeping.
Honey production has become a lucrative enterprise for rural Afghans, consistently in high demand in domestic and export markets. Afghan beekeepers have particularly prospered in recent years thanks to an alliance between the Afghanistan Rural Enterprise Development Program (AREDP), the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development and World Bank which has increased technical support and financial discipline training to rural beekeepers. One resident of Herat City spoke proudly of Afghanistan’s local produce, saying, “The quality of our domestic honey is undisputed. It makes you physically fit and is a cure for many illnesses.” For many Afghan women, it has also proved curative for economic dependence.
The tradition of beekeeping in Afghanistan began in the 1960s, and due to the efforts of multiple NGOs and foreign aid agencies, has become foundational to Afghanistan’s rural economy over the last several years. In the Bamiyan Province, for instance, four beekeeping cooperatives employ more than 400 people, half of whom are women, to produce 14 tons of honey annually.
These rural women, each maintaining an average of four hives, have the chance to become entrepreneurs for the first time in their lives. Because women and girls can be culturally viewed as burdens to their families, this opportunity to bring in revenue has elevated their status within the household and the culture at large. One Afghan beekeeper named Jamila demonstrated this profound new sense of purpose, pounding her chest and saying, “I make my money for me.”
The newfound agency accompanies, and directly correlates with, a remarkable economic rebound. While denying half of the population opportunity access can only stagnate growth, providing local women with something as simple as a few beehives can revitalize an entire community and redefine community roles. Shifting cultural attitudes and lifting social restrictions has, at once, enhanced the quality of individual livelihoods and sweetened the overall economic state of Afghanistan.
– Robin Lee