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Afghan Businesses Run By Women Suffer Exponentially Under Pandemic

FILE: An Afghan model displays her outfit at a fashion show in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif in April 2018.
FILE: An Afghan model displays her outfit at a fashion show in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif in April 2018.

A northern Afghan province that once boasted promising business opportunities for women has been hit especially hard by the coronavirus pandemic.

Officials and business leaders in Balkh, a strategic province bordering Central Asia, say the coronavirus pandemic is pushing Afghan women and their businesses to the brink.

Nearly half of Balkh’s hundreds of women-owned businesses, which previously employed more than 2,000 women, are still shuttered weeks after coronavirus restrictions were lifted.

Nasir Ahmad Qasimi, CEO of Balkh’s Chamber of Commerce and Industries, tells Radio Free Afghanistan that a month after restrictions were lifted in Balkh, its effects are detrimental, leaving business owners concerned for their future.

“Our female business owners are not active at the moment,” Qasimi said. “In the past four months, 100 percent of female-owned businesses were halted due to the pandemic and half of those businesses are currently not in operation.”

Most of Balkh’s businesses run by women focus on making handicrafts and clothing that is then sold at local markets. An exhibition marking International Women’s Day in March saw more than 240 businesses showcase their products and highlight the potential and value of Afghan women in business.

But women in Afghanistan are finding it difficult to get business going like before the pandemic. Women business leaders in Balkh say their businesses suffer from a lack of consumer demand, closed borders, and the suspension of cargo flights to Western markets, where Afghan handicrafts often reaped handsome profits.

Sima Hashimi owns two textile workshops in Balkh’s capital, Mazar-e Sharif. She decided to reopen them two weeks ago once lockdown restrictions were lifted. But she says her businesses are now producing only half as much as they produced before the pandemic because of a lack of consumer demand.

“Most female business owners are in a similar situation, resorting to loans from the bank in order to continue operations,” Hashimi told Radio Free Afghanistan.

She says the women in Mazar-e Sharif who make handmade rugs, shoes, and bags have slowly started working again, but things are not the same. “Many women have lost their businesses and gone bankrupt because of the lack of demand,” Hashimi said.

Sher Ahmad Sipahizada, provincial director of the Industry and Commerce Ministry, says his office is looking into helping women market their wares by creating exhibitions while also transitioning to the production of different goods, such as dairy products.

Balkh, which borders Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, has emerged as a central hub for commerce, trade, and local craftsmanship in northern Afghanistan.

While official figures show Afghanistan to have less than 40,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and over 1,000 deaths from COVID-19, the actual tally from the pandemic is thought to be much higher. This week, the results of a survey conducted through more than 9,000 antibody tests estimated that some 31.5 percent of Afghanistan’s estimated 32-million population has contracted the coronavirus.

The World Bank expects economic growth in Afghanistan to decline sharply this year. It expects a vast majority of Afghans to “to fall under the poverty line due to the severe impacts of the pandemic on incomes and jobs.”

Nilly Kohzad wrote this story based on Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Mujibur Rahman Habibzai’s reporting from Balkh, Afghanistan.