“It’s like we were sleeping and now we’ve woken up.”
Rahima, a woman in western Afghanistan, is talking about what it’s like to be able to read: to read a medicine bottle, a sign at a vegetable market, your own name. In Afghanistan, where many men and vast numbers of women are illiterate, learning to read feels life-changing.
Cloaked in dark chadors, Rahima and a dozen other women are sitting in a small mud-domed room in their village. As they talk about their literacy lessons, they pour molten peach-colored soap from a huge pot into small round molds
“One of the first words I realized I could read was ‘pomegranate.’ I was so excited,” says another woman. “I can read road signs, and things at the medical clinic,” says a third.
The women are part of a self-help group formed by Catholic Relief Services and its local partner, the Welfare and Development Organization for Afghanistan. Because Afghanistan’s vulnerable women — including widows and those with disabled husbands — often cannot feed their families, CRS finds ways they can earn money.
CRS asks women what products, such as jam or carpets, are in demand in their villages. After getting buy-in from the whole community, CRS buys the group starter materials such as cookware or sewing machines, and trains the women in basic business practices. Many groups also learn to read, write, and do math.
Though the classes are only one part of the self-help program, they make a huge difference in the women’s lives — and in their business. “Now that we know math, we can count how many soap cakes we have sold, how much the raw materials cost, and how much profit we get,” Rahima says.
Once they start making a profit from their soap or other products, “the women’s groups collect money into a communal fund,” says Yassir, CRS program manager. “Part of it goes to pay the teacher.”
The women, mostly mothers, grew up during a time when studying at school was impossible. Down the road from the soap-making group, a woman in a CRS embroidery group talks about those dangerous years. “When the Russians were here, there was bombing and no one went to school — not boys and not girls. No one went outside,” she says. “Then during the Taliban time, girls weren’t allowed to go to school.”
“WDOA gave us this blackboard and pens and notebooks,” she continues. “We have a teacher and we are learning to read.”
“Before, there was nothing for us to do and we didn’t know anything about reading,” says Rahima. “Now we can read a little. And because of the soap-making, we can support our families and other community members through the emergency loans from our saving box. We don’t have to depend on others.”
Another woman stands up and writes a few lines on the blackboard that hangs near the soap pot. Translated, it reads, “I want to say thank you.”
“A year ago I couldn’t write this,” she smiles.
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