Afghan Women Find a Way Out of Poverty—Through Cookies

Afghanistan visit

CRS board member Carolyn Woo visits women’s self-help groups in Chaghcharan, Afghanistan. Photo by Laura Sheahen/CRS

Taste-testing cookies in remote Afghan towns: such is the life of the globetrotting CRS board member. Last weekend, Dean Carolyn Woo of Notre Dame visited a women’s self-help group in Chaghcharan, Afghanistan, and sampled items from their newly-created bakery. Her verdict: “Delicious.”

In a country where women rarely own property or control household finances, CRS organizes groups of active, entrepreneurial women who want to earn money. CRS encourages the groups—usually made up of 20 women—to pool their savings and develop plans for a small business, like raising chickens or sewing curtains.

One group decided to start a bakery, since there was none in town. CRS provided an oven and ingredients like flour; the women did the rest. They gave out free samples, and less than a month after starting up, got a contract from the local police for 880 pounds of baked goods a week. “They’re the Dunkin’ Donuts of Afghanistan” quipped CRS Regional Director Kevin Hartigan.

Afghanistan bakery

CRS identifies motivated, entrepreneurial women and supports them as they form small businesses like this bakery. Photo by Laura Sheahen/CRS

The bakery is now self-sustaining, and each woman gets a share of its profits. With the money, they buy food and clothes for their children and can put them in school.

The women also learn how to read, write, and do basic math in the groups. With marketable skills, the women can plan for the future. The bakery group hopes to buy another oven eventually. And a woman from one of the groups wants to open a sweet shop in a part of town far from the central marketplace, where demand is likely to be high.

As Woo enjoyed the freshly-basked cookies, she asked the women about challenges they faced. One hurdle is getting enough fuel for the bakery oven: wood is expensive, so often the women have to walk miles in the mountains to gather small bushes and load the bundles onto donkeys. The bushes are then dried and burned in the oven.

But with plenty of bakery orders from the local police and from other vendors, the women aren’t stopping. “You’ve all worked so hard,” Woo told the women. “It’s an honor to be here and see your success.”

- Laura Sheahen, CRS regional information officer for Asia and the Pacific Rim

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