Finding a Voice, Finding a Path

07-Mar-2016 Categories: Afghanistan International Women's Day

Finding a Voice, Finding a Path

by Esther Lee

Najeba, a civil servant at the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation, and Livestock in Kabul, Afghanistan. 

As a recent transplant to the D.C area, I can’t help but feel like a small fish in a big pond from time to time. This city attracts the best and the brightest. It can be ruthlessly competitive –a harsh reality for someone from a relatively small town where, to a degree, I felt “special.” It is easy to succumb to feelings of insecurity and anxiety, to not speak up for fear of saying something ‘stupid.’ Sometimes I feel as vulnerable as an egg without its shell.

I have been the Afghanistan programs intern at IESC, for just a short time, but thankfully, the environment has been truly welcoming and non-hierarchical. I welcomed the opportunity to contribute a blog post for International Women’s Day, even though I had no idea what I would write.

And then I read about Najeba Karemi. Her story struck a chord.            

Najeba is a civil servant at the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation, and Livestock in Kabul, Afghanistan. As a woman in the male-dominated world of government and agriculture, her path was not easy.

“I lacked the confidence to even raise my hand and voice my opinions in front of my peers,” she said. “I lacked the required skills to be able to effectively carry out my position’s responsibilities; I felt hugely inadequate.” 

For me—a woman and a minority who did not come from privilege—this hit close to home. Suddenly I felt a kinship with a woman I’d never met, who lives many time zones away, and who has likely experienced far more hardship in life than I ever will.

But for one small moment in time, we carried the same heavy heart. We shared a desire to speak up, a yearning to stand tall.

Najeba received coaching and mentoring through the Capacity Building & Change Management II Program, which IESC implements. The program strengthens the agriculture ministry by modernizing systems and technology and by embedding a cadre of “change management specialists,” experienced Afghans who work side-by-side with civil servants to build their skills.

Najeba’s skills increased, and so did her confidence. “The agriculture sector in Afghanistan is still very much a male dominated environment even though women have always played a critical role,” she said. “It can be intimidating at times, to enter into a meeting and be expected to speak your mind, it was not easy for me at the beginning. Now I lead meetings.”

As a manager with the home economy department at the ministry, Najeba designs and implements food security and other agriculture projects to women farmers, a task that can be dangerous as well as undervalued. Because of her own struggles and achievements, she encourages a legacy of women to feel empowered and strong. “It’s a truly great feeling to go out to the villages, speak to the women who live there and be able to provide them with the technical knowledge they so desperately need, to raise their income and adequately feed their families. It’s a feeling of pride that I am now trying to install into my own children.”

As the world recognizes International Women’s Day, we see Hollywood actresses given large and well-funded platforms to discuss global women’s issues and garner a worldwide audience. While their accomplishments are impressive, celebrity spokespeople are detached from everyday life. It is women like Najeba who truly inspire me.  Candid about her insecurities, relentlessly hardworking and quick to recognize those that helped her along the way, Najeba is blazing a trail. To me, she is bravery personified and a role model—not just to me, not just to women, but to all.


This blog was written as part of IESC's International Women's Day 2016 campaign. To view all posts related to this campaign, click here