Saluting Unsung Champions, This International Women’s Day and Beyond

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Saluting Unsung Champions, This International Women’s Day and Beyond

By IESC President and CEO Tom Miller

Dr. Shahla, gender director of IESC’s CBCMP-II Program.

Today we celebrate International Women’s Day. In many of the countries where we work, March 8 is a true holiday. Women receive flowers, gifts, and other expressions of honor and appreciation, and the IESC field offices participate in these celebratory traditions.

Here in Washington, DC, the IESC home office will recognize the day by having our annual staff retreat, when we spend some time reflecting on our accomplishments during the previous year, but, even more importantly, look enthusiastically to the future, planning how we will bring about inclusive, sustainable economic development in the next year and beyond.

Over the past several days, you have heard voices from across our organization’interns, volunteers, program associates, senior leaders, and beneficiaries. Our bloggers champion the strength, determination, and achievements of women in every corner of the globe, yet every one of them shares these stories with a keen awareness of just how far there is to go.

The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is #PledgeforParity. At IESC, we know that no community, no society, no nation can truly prosper when half the population is cut out of the equation. In its latest estimate, the World Economic Forum forecasts that it will take 115 years to close the gender gap.

I believe we can do better than 115 years, but things will not change overnight, especially in certain parts of the world. IESC has two large programs in Afghanistan, where we are supporting the growth of small- and medium-sized businesses, and strengthening one of the government’s largest ministries, the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation, and Livestock. In a place like Afghanistan, the international development community can do a lot to improve infrastructure and systems, and bolster the private sector, improve access to health care, even advocate for changes in the legal and regulatory framework. But it is harder to change minds and mindsets in places where deeply held religious and cultural customs work against equal rights for women.

But there are voices’strong, confident women’s voices’that are working actively to bring about change in the country they love. One of those women is Shahla Amiri.

Dr. Shahla’as everyone calls her’is the gender director of our program with the agriculture ministry. She is a highly educated, committed, and passionate advocate for women’s empowerment and the future of women in Afghanistan. Dr. Shahla is a consummate professional, but don’t expect her to back down from an argument. In a completely male-dominated environment, she speaks her mind, argues her position, and quite often, gets her way. She is a change-maker.

In Afghanistan, the vast majority of the population’around 80 percent’depends on agriculture for their livelihood. Women make up the majority of the agricultural workforce, yet own none of the land and control little of the profits.

Dr. Shahla knows that gender is not an issue on its own. Issues of gender equity and gender constraints cannot be separated from agriculture, or health, or nutrition. Last year, under her leadership, the Afghan agriculture ministry established the first ever Women’s Empowerment Working Group.

The working group serves an advisory role to the ministry leadership on gender issues, advocates for the hiring of female employees, and promotes increased transparency and accountability within the ministry when it comes to women’s empowerment.

Not even a year old, the working group is already making its mark. This year in Nangarhar province, the ministry is establishing 700 kitchen gardens, greenhouses, and small-scale food processing facilities. Ultimately, the project will create 34,600 home-based kitchen gardens with drip irrigation systems in 20 provinces, increasing food security and promoting sustainable livelihoods. The primary beneficiaries of the project are poor and vulnerable women, including widows and their children.

Dr. Shahla didn’t waste any time extending women’s empowerment groups out into the regional offices of the ministry, with immediate plans for groups in seven provinces. And I’m told that the ministry receives ongoing requests from other regional offices for their own women’s empowerment working groups. Dr. Shahla is clearly onto something.

It is stories like these that give me hope for the future. In the meantime, we at IESC will keep working to promote strong and resilient economies’that benefit everyone’and to champion women like Dr. Shahla. Happy International Women’s Day.

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