Learning, earning, healing and giving back
How UNICEF-supported vocational training centres for women and girls are combatting mental health challenges and poverty in western Afghanistan
HERAT, AFGHANISTAN - Satisfaction. Pride. Empowerment. That’s what we saw on the faces of the women and girls who recently completed a 6-month vocational training programme in Herat, thanks to support from the European Union (EU) and Aktion Deutschland Hilft.
Afghanistan remains one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. Given that 97 per cent of the country is living in poverty and families are plagued with plunging winter temperatures, drought and widespread malnutrition, the programme is in high demand. Of the 2,000 applicants, only 550 are accepted onto each course; currently 200 are women. They are women who have faced difficulties in life, from domestic abuse and living on the street, to illiteracy and early marriage.
Not only do these women and girls receive skills-training in a safe place, they can also participate in individual and group mental health counseling. Scarred by years of deprivation, displacement, ill-treatment and loss, the sessions help many of the participants to process what they’ve experienced and build their resilience.
HELP Germany, UNICEF Afghanistan’s implementing partner, says that a critical part of the programme is inter-community dialogue with the de facto authorities in the west of Afghanistan to help them better understand the value of girls and women building skills and contributing to household income.
Amina, 24, tells us, “I’m soooo happy! Before I came here, I felt useless. I felt I couldn’t do anything. Now, I can sew, make different handicrafts and support my family.”
Throughout the course, Amina has drawn strength from her classmates. “Since being given this opportunity, everyone has tried their hardest; we’re all determined to succeed. Learning and developing new skills are like strong weapons to overcome our challenges and give us hope for the future.”
One of the most striking aspects from the participants on such vocational training courses in Afghanistan is a strong sense of gratitude and a fierce ambition to ‘give back.’
“After I grow my own business,” Amina says, “I want to create a workshop like this to give other girls like me the chance to learn, to earn and to gain skills.”
Her classmate, Bibi Jan, agrees. Burdened with a drug-addict husband, she has, for years, struggled to find money to feed her four children. She ekes out a living picking saffron stems when the flowers are in season, and processes nuts by cracks their shells by hand till 2 am.
It is, she tells us, “Too difficult, too hard.”
It takes her one hour to travel to the vocational training center, but it’s a journey she’s been determined to make each day for the last 6 months.
“I showed my handicrafts to my neighbours; they have bought them and given me money. It makes me so happy. I even participated in an exhibition last week showing the handbags I made. Now, I feel good in myself.”
Gul Jan, 24, has learned tailoring. She always wanted to go to university, but her family is poor and could not cover the costs of her continuing education. Her husband, a driver, doesn’t earn enough money either so she was delighted to be accepted onto the vocational training course – and even happier that he was supportive.
“The best thing about this course has been the mental health support that I’ve received. It’s a relief to talk to someone in confidence. My head is clearer. It doesn’t make my problems go away, but it makes me feel better.”
A quick learner, Gul Jan, began making and selling children’s clothes.
With the money she earned, she was able to enroll onto a midwifery course at Herat University. In the morning, she studies midwifery; in the afternoon, she attends the tailoring course. It’s hard work, she admits, but she loves being busy.
After months of learning new skills such as tailoring, carpet weaving, cooking, including literacy and how to run their own business, 200 women and girls graduated in November. Now, they are ready to launch their own businesses and contribute financially to their families.
To those who made this life-changing course possible: the European Union (EU), HELP-Germany, HELP-Germany sub-contractor: OSSA (Organization for Sustainable Aid in Afghanistan), and Aktion Deutschland Hilft, thank you. You’ll never know which girl or which woman you helped, but know that you have made a difference.