Women's Economic Empowerment in Afghanistan

In a new series of policy briefs, our YLFees discuss current political challenges and recommendations

Why is women's economic empowerment important? Women's economic empowerment not only contributes to inclusive and sustainable economic growth; it also enhances the effectiveness of poverty reduction policy. In Afghanistan, the economy is based on agriculture, and most of the work is done by women. Women-owned businesses are increasingly important drivers of change in the private sector for broader economic development. To promote rural women's economic empowerment, reduce gender inequalities in rural areas of Afghanistan, and increase women's access to resources, assets, services, technologies, and economic opportunities, the government should facilitate MSE (Micro & Small Enterprises) development. In developed countries, SMEs (Small and Medium Enterprises) are the backbone of the economy. This brief promotes the following recommendations:

  • Twenty percent of Afghans surveyed say women contribute to their household income. Key areas for the government to improve private sector growth in Afghanistan are to reduce the complicated procedures (especially taxation and registration) and documentation required to register the IGAs (Income Generating Activities).
  • Work with MSEs for sufficient and necessary infrastructure, categorized according to the sector in every province to access markets.
  • Create a larger labor force, give them subsidies, and train poor farmers to grow their expertise and enterprises (such as processing, sorting, grading, and packaging).
  • The government should accept the IGAs and startups without taxation and other formalities and recognize them as enterprises in Afghanistan and facilitate registration in the Afghan business registry system.

Afghanistan is a rural economy, and about 73 percent of the population lives in rural areas. Women play important roles in the rural economy as farmers, wage earners, and entrepreneurs. They also take responsibility for their families' well-being, including food provision and care for children and the elderly. Rural women's unpaid work, particularly in low households, often includes collecting wood and water. Women from indigenous and grassroots communities are often custodians of traditional knowledge, which is key for their communities' livelihood, resilience, and culture.

Yet, women in rural areas face constraints in engaging in economic activities because of gender-based discrimination and social norms, disproportionate involvement in unpaid work, and unequal access to education, healthcare, property, financial and other services.

Women's empowerment in the economic context is defined as a process of achieving women's equal access to and control over financial resources and ensuring they can use them to increase or gain full control over other areas of their lives. Rural women's economic empowerment aims to empower rural women through income generation activities growth and small scale enterprises. Reducing taxes and other registration formalities in the system and increasing women's access to resources, assets, services, technologies, and economic opportunities can contribute to Afghanistan's economic growth.

Women are afraid of registering their IGAs and enterprises with the government because of the number of formalities, and they cannot afford the taxes. But if the government creates a system in which women can easily register their IGAs, this will make a huge difference. Women's economic empowerment is not only to contribute to inclusive and sustainable economic growth and poverty reduction. The government and the international community's responsibility is to reduce barriers placed on IGAs and small scale enterprises. These enterprises can create local job opportunities at the community level, contributing to Afghanistan's economic growth. The government should accept the IGAs and startups without taxation and other formalities and recognize them as an enterprise in Afghanistan and facilitate registration in Afghanistan's business registry system.


The research conducted is an evidence-based situation analysis of Afghanistan and a desk review of how rural women (especially widows) are marginalized and affected by poverty while also being in the workforce within the home or businesses. Most women in rural areas of Afghanistan are doing unpaid work. They cannot formalize their IGAs to contract and continue their enterprises in the local and national-level market.

According to the FAO, women make significant contributions to the rural economy in all world regions (FAO, 2019). In Afghanistan, women are not given the same opportunity as men and are not paid for their work, especially in agriculture. In rural areas of Afghanistan, women are involved in three to four value chains of an export or any trade, but the profits go to men. Rural women (particularly vulnerable ones such as widows) need more attention from economic empowerment programs to continue their lives and educate their children for a better future.

Rural women are key agents for achieving economic transformation. But the complicated procedure of registering their IGAs and enterprises and certain taxes are among the many challenges (to say nothing of limited access to credit, markets, health care, and education) they face. The international community and government can decrease these challenges by empowering women economically. Empowering them is key to the well-being of individuals, families, and rural communities and the overall economic productivity in Afghanistan. The government and the international community's responsibility is to reduce barriers to IGAs and small scale enterprises. These enterprises can create local job opportunities at the community level, contributing to Afghanistan's economic growth. In many settings, women face more constraints than men in accessing key productive resources such as land, services (such as credit), service extensions, and social protection. They face wage discrimination in rural labor markets and often work without remuneration on family farms. It limits their capacity to contribute to agricultural production and take advantage of new opportunities. The benefits of supporting women in their IGAs and enterprises are that they can create job opportunities, increase labor participation for women, and increase decision-making authority at the community and country levels. Their primary responsibility for unpaid care work within the home and the associated inequalities in access to valued resources and opportunities are at the core of women's subordinate status in society. They leave women dependent on male provision for themselves and their children or are forced to compete in markets for their products, goods, and services on highly disadvantageous terms. Their disadvantaged status in the market place reinforces women's lack of strategic agency, both about their own lives and on the broader society. The economic empowerment of women is thus a matter of human rights and social justice.

The best option is to empower rural women economically as women make significant contributions to Afghanistan's rural economy. Empowerment can take place by recognizing their enterprises as SMEs and reducing their taxation.

This brief on rural women's economic empowerment focuses on strengthening the country's commitment toward economic growth in rural poverty reduction and considering more marginalized women like widows.

The economic empowerment of rural women matters for poverty reduction. Early generalizations in gender and development literature that female-headed households are always necessarily the 'poorest of the poor' have been challenged in Afghanistan. However, these studies have also established that families that rely solely on female earnings (i.e., female-maintained households, widows) tend to be over-represented at the lower end of the income distribution. This is not surprising. If women have lower levels of education and face discrimination in the markets for the sale of their goods, services, and wage labor as well as in their access to assets, technology, and financial services, their efforts to earn a living for themselves and their dependents are likely to be rewarded more unfavorably than those of men with equivalent characteristics. Conversely, lower-income households with male or joint headship can generally rely on women's earnings to keep their households above the poverty line or prevent them from declining into poverty in crisis times. Investing in rural women's economic resources helps low household weather crises and increases their chances of moving out of poverty.

Rural women's economic empowerment is essential if they are to participate in, contribute to and benefit from growth processes on terms that recognize the value of their contributions, respect their dignity, and make it possible for them to negotiate a fairer distribution of the benefits of growth. It, therefore, brings about a more balanced process of growth. However, this will not be achieved merely by increasing women's access to resources. Experience shows that it is possible to improve women's access to land, markets, jobs, credit, etc., in ways that are demeaning and exploitative and do little to challenge their subordinate status within the home. It is more interesting to look at forms of access representing a substantive expansion of women's life options and agency. This is unlikely to occur through market forces alone.

Sona Mahmoodi is a member of the 2020/21 Young Leaders Forum.

This article has also been published in Dari by Afghanistan Today. The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and not necessarily those of Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.



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