“Afghan women are probably some of the most resilient and courageous women in the world, given their thirst for improving their lives, despite the horrible tragedies they’ve suffered,” says Katrin Fakiri, co-founder of Parwaz MicroFinance Institution, a non-profit that provides micro loans to women in extreme poverty in Afghanistan so they can build micro businesses. Parwaz is a Dari word meaning “to rise” or “to fly.”
Microfinance enables the poor to increase their incomes and build businesses, reducing their vulnerability. This can be a powerful tool toward self-empowerment, especially for women. The idea of microfinance is not new, but the world has taken notice lately, in part due to the winners of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize, Grameen Bank and Muhammad Yunus, a Bangladeshi banker and economist who originated the concept of micro credit, extending loans to entrepreneurs who do not have access to traditional bank loans.
Katrin grew up in Afghanistan, but moved to the United States with her family shortly after the Soviets invaded. Though the U.S. has become her home, she decided to return shortly after 9/11. According to an article on ladieswholaunch.com, she said some kind Americans approached her, offering to start a micro-lending organization in Afghanistan, provided that she run and manage the organization. Katrin agreed, and upon her return in 2002, she found herself marveling at how she could have escaped such utter poverty as a young girl.
Afghanistan is one of the poorest nations in the world with a literacy rate of 28 percent. Today many women struggle because of the effects of war, the instability of the government, and traditional beliefs about the role of women, especially in rural areas.
Parwaz has close to 1,000 clients (all female) who receive loans and the need continues to grow. Many are engaged in farming, weaving, baking, small shops, beauty parlors, and tailoring shops. In order to qualify for a loan, you must be poor, female, a head of household, or a widow. Widows are given special priority.
Katrin tells one story of a widow named Shahnaz, who had cultivated a neighbor’s field in exchange for three meals a day for she and her several children. At times there was so little to go around that they were forced to eat grass. With a loan from Parwaz, Katrin says, “She bought a cow and started making yogurt and other dairy products to sell. She repaid the loan in six months. We gave her another loan and she bought another cow. In a year and a half, by buying three cows, (the woman and her children) are not indentured servants anymore.”
Micro loans are an effective way for borrowers [mostly women] to become independent entrepreneurs, according to the MicroBanking Bulletin. Most of these women tend to be self-employed and use micro loans to start household-based businesses. In some cases, they use skills they already have, that may not require additional education.
This is often the case for applicants who come to Parwaz. There is not a lot of additional training needed to get a small business started, and a micro business allows women the added advantage of working independently at home while still caring for their children, as in the case of Shahnaz. They no longer have to rely on relatives or neighbors and they can avoid becoming indebted to moneylenders charging high amounts of interest.
The program is successful and has continually inspired Katrin. She says, “When I see a client that had nothing just six months prior to getting a loan and over time has started to send her children to school again, has more respect from her family and husband in particular, has been able to buy some items for herself and her house, and above all has confidence, that is what inspires me to stay and continue my work in Afghanistan. No woman has ever been able to fight for her rights from a position of hunger and oppression. It is only when they gain a measure of economic independence that they gain confidence they can speak and fight from a position of power and strength.”
The opportunity to start a micro business affords women the freedom and ability to stand on their own. The most satisfying part of Katrin’s job? She puts it quite simply, “Knowing that I have helped a woman start a new life and stand on her own two feet.”