The Other Problem Facing Women in Afghanistan

Women business owners in Afghanistan are facing a growing threat. Criminal gangs, attracted by the growing wealth of savvy entrepreneurs, are targeting women with businesses for extortion and undermining the country's best chance at economic growth.

A new article in the Daily Beast highlights the stories of two such women, Amina and Habiba. (The names in the article were changed for privacy.) Habiba enjoyed a thriving childcare business, until one horrific day:

Habiba's kindergarten at the end of a narrow and dusty alley is still open, but only barely. A year ago, laughter and the sounds of children playing floated from the new two-story white house with rows of little red and yellow chairs filling its freshly painted living rooms. Then Habiba's son was kidnapped by men demanding more than $25,000 from his mother, an outrageous sum for an entrepreneur saddled by startup debt and struggling to keep capital flowing through her young business. Fearing for her own safety and that of her other children, she shuttered her classrooms and moved her family to Pakistan while she awaited word from the men who took her son. The family's life savings vanished as Habiba spent what cash she had to cover travel and living expenses in Peshawar. By the time she returned to Afghanistan months later, her customers were gone, her business was hobbled and her debts had mounted. [...]

Female entrepreneurs now see their families threatened regularly. Sons, nephews, and sometimes the entrepreneurs themselves are abducted by thugs demanding tens of thousands of dollars, a death knell for businesswomen in a capital-starved country where banks don't tend to lend to small businesses, particularly ones owned by women without either collateral or a track record. The Afghan National Police have proved powerless to rein in the criminality now menacing the entrepreneurs the nation needs, if it is ever to stand on its own two feet without the financial backing of the increasingly impatient international community. (Habiba's son was released after being held for about six weeks.)

As tragic as Habiba's story is, the problem touches the lives of many women in Afghanistan. The article explains how many women turned toward entrepreneurship in the wake of the Taliban's reign of terror, as traditional options for employment closed in the face of extremism. As Afghanistan struggles to rebuild, women who are creating and managing businesses are the government's best hope toward steering the country's future. Sadly, with so many women being targeted, the hopes for women - as well as the economic health of the country - are slowly dribbling away.

For Amina*, an entrepreneur who owns a petrol distribution firm, it is too late for protection. Her small business grew steadily during the past few years, with revenue climbing after she opened a gas station convenience store. Criminals caught on to her success, however, and kidnapped her. Her family scrambled to gather the more than $100,000 in ransom money her abductors demanded, eventually winning her release, but she now owes friends and relatives tens of thousands of dollars. Profits Amina saved to grow her enterprise are gone-instead of financing investment, those dollars now fund her kidnappers. The fledgling entrepreneur's dream of expanding her distribution operations to neighboring provinces is destroyed and her company has run out of working capital. It is likely her dozen employees will soon be jobless.

Like Habiba, Amina was eager to build her business and help rebuild her nation. These entrepreneurs, like many others in Afghanistan, relied upon their ventures to support their extended families and to fund their children's education. Now, drained of cash and out of hope, they are eager to leave the country. But that might bring more danger, not less.

Reports like these underscore how important it is to take a full, comprehensive approach to solving a societal problem. As wonderful as microloan programs like Kiva can be, if women are persecuted for exercising these opportunities or for growing their businesses, all of our best efforts will be for naught.

Thugs Plague Women Entrepreneurs [The Daily Beast]