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Archive for January 2008

Afghan woman is all about business

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Entrepreneur Kamela Sediqi teaches Afghans around the country the skills they need to start ventures.

By Gayle Tzemach | The Christian Science Monitor
from the January 29, 2008 edition – http://www.csmonitor.com/2008/0129/p07s02-wosc.html

Kabul, Afghanistan

In a small office hidden behind a gate in Kabul, Kamela Sediqi sits at her laptop and builds her business. The unlikely entrepreneur is the architect of Kaweyan Business Development Services, a consulting firm she started in 2004 with only her computer and her determination.

Barely 30 and on her third startup, Ms. Sediqi employs 25 men and women, more than half of them full time. She started her first venture, a tailoring business, to support her mother and brother during Taliban rule. In the end, it provided work for more than 100 women. And it gave Sediqi the entrepreneurial bug that eventually led her to Kaweyan – a service firm that had few capital needs at the outset.

Now, traveling across the country on buses and planes operating on unpredictable schedules, Sediqi trains adults in the basics that will help them launch their own ventures. Over a few days, Sediqi teaches skills ranging from developing an idea to marketing and accounting. Many participants go on to start their own businesses.

Sediqi’s goal is to grow Kaweyan into one of South Asia’s leading consultancies. By the end of January, the firm will be operating in Kabul, Mazar-e Sharif, and Herat, making national reach nearly a reality. Many of Sediqi’s contracts still come from foreign donors, but that is changing as Kaweyan matures and the private sector develops.

Longtime clients say they are impressed with Sediqi’s growth – and see her gender as an opportunity in this segregated society.

“With her training materials and her approach, she is able to put her clients at ease,” says Bryan Rhodes, head of a US Agency for International Development program to grow Afghan small business. “And [being female] opens up a market segment…. She can train men and women where others cannot.”

The success of Sediqi and a handful of other Afghan businesswomen come amid difficult circumstances, despite steady growth in the overall economy. In the face of a resurgent Taliban, stagnant reconstruction, and the high-profile kidnappings of foreign aid workers, these women push forward, propelled by entrepreneurial grit and desire to support their families. While no official figures track their numbers, they can be found in pockets of Afghanistan, launching consultancies, furniture factories, and printing houses. Many of them say better business conditions, rather than more talk of their plight, are critical.

“Business is the only way to support Afghanistan,” says Sediqi, noting that the foreign money now funding the country soon will dry up. “We can make our country by establishing businesses and supporting businesses and creating more investment.”

Government officials say business is critical to women’s advancement as well as Afghanistan’s, tracing some of the stubbornness of the hurdles they face to an “externally injected” aid effort.

“The women’s thing here, particularly with the international community, is very politicized,” says Omar Zakhilwal, president of the Afghanistan Investment Support Agency. “It is more of a show than substance. We should focus on meaningful economic progress, and that is sustainable economic development.”

Aid workers argue that the social structure makes bringing women into the fold a struggle. “Our entrepreneurship program comes from very strong market analysis, which does make it more difficult to incorporate women because the range of activities that women can undertake for cultural reasons is very constrained,” says Joanne Trotter of the Aga Khan Development Network.

Visitors wandering around a recent agricultural fair in Kabul saw the challenge on display. In stall after stall, women sold the same wares: handicrafts, jewelry, and traditional clothing.

“A lot of women are interested in business but there is a lack of markets – that is the main problem,” said Zahra Sharifi of the Daikondi Women’s Business Association as she tried to draw in a rare customer. Seated nearby, her husband nodded, saying he supported his wife’s work and just wished she sold more of it.

Alongside the pitfalls facing all business owners, including limited capital, marginal infrastructure, and corruption, women face societal constraints and growing insecurity.

Yet Sediqi remains committed to bringing her work to even the more conservative and less secure areas of her country, including the region from which an American aid worker recently was abducted. On those trips, she gladly dons her burqa and boards a bus.

Once she arrives, Sediqi stands before a room full of men, facing a slew of questions, such as whether she is married (she is) and whether her family approves of her work (it does). She must convince her audience to take her seriously despite her gender and youth. She does this by speaking in terms they know: family and the Koran.

“I say to them, ‘I come to you as a sister and daughter to share my experience,'” says Sediqi. Most of the time, she wins them over. One man told her he would educate his daughter if he could be certain she would turn out like Sediqi.

Back in Kabul, she is up against high rents and even higher energy prices. And she must battle for talented staff against well-paying international agencies. Yet Sediqi is fueled by a belief that small business can make a difference.

Certainly many, both women and men, are watching. “When it comes to business, the belief is that it is a male thing,” says Dr. Zakhilwal. “Women are seen as dependent. But as more and more women come into the arena, they are seeing it is not just for men.”

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Written by afghandevnews

January 30, 2008 at 2:49 am

Posted in Development

Aid reaches winter-affected families as deaths top 500

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KABUL, 29 January 2008 (IRIN) – Food and non-food humanitarian relief supplies have been delivered to hundreds of vulnerable families affected by heavy snow and extremely cold weather in western and central-western provinces of Afghanistan, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

Latest figures from Afghanistan’s National Disasters Management Authority (ANDMA) indicate that 503 people – mostly children and the elderly – have lost their lives due to cold weather and heavy snow since December 2007. The UN has confirmed at least 329 deaths in Herat, Badghis, Ghor and Farah provinces.

Some parts of Afghanistan are facing their harshest winter in 30 years, with temperatures falling to minus 25, aid agencies say.

UN agencies, Afghan and foreign aid organisations, NATO-led Provincial Reconstruction Teams and local residents have separately delivered relief items in Herat, Badghis and other affected provinces, OCHA said in a situation report.

The UN World Food Programme (WFP) has distributed over 65 metric tonnes (mt) of mixed food aid to 6,000 families in five districts in Herat Province, western Afghanistan. Additionally, 12,797 mt of food items have been delivered to neighbouring Ghor Province where tens of thousands are “high risk” in terms of food-insecurity. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has also stocked 1,000 blankets, 500 plastic mats, heaters and personal hygiene items in Ghor Province.

Meanwhile, the Afghan Red Crescent Society has earmarked about US$1 million to ensure that every vulnerable, affected family receives a cash voucher of up to $70, the organisation said.

IDP camps affected

Thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in several camps and settlements in Herat, Helmand and Kandahar provinces are feared to have been severely affected by the winter weather.

“[IDPs] living in camps near Herat [city] have suffered greatly from the recent snowfall and intense cold,” OCHA’s report said.

Aid agencies have agreed to assist 2,500 families in Maslakh, Shaidai and Minaret IDP camps in Herat Province.

However, it is still unclear whether similar aid will be offered to thousands of other IDPs in Mukhtar and Zherai camps in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, where UN agencies suspended their relief operations in March 2006.

Needs assessments, coordination

Blocked roads, rugged terrain and insecurity have hindered access to remote areas. This has prevented reliable humanitarian needs assessments from being carried out, and has to some extent affected coordinated relief delivery, some aid agencies said. Consequently, there are confusing numbers regarding casualties and aid needs.

The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and WFP conducted a joint assessment of some areas in Ghor Province by air, which was followed by talks with officials in the provincial capital, Chaghcharan, on 24 January.

“There is a need to improve information collection and management and also strengthen coordination which will help humanitarian actors to respond effectively and promptly,” Ingrid Macdonald, a regional advocacy adviser with the Norwegian Refugee Council in Kabul, told IRIN.

Meanwhile, dozens of people in Jowzjan Province, northern Afghanistan, demonstrated on 27 January calling on the government and aid organisations to provide urgent humanitarian assistance.

In Daykundi Province, central Afghanistan, where a convoy of commercial trucks could not deliver about 800 mt of WFP food aid due to extremely cold weather – people are waiting for aid to be delivered by two military helicopters, officials said.

Written by afghandevnews

January 30, 2008 at 2:49 am

Posted in Aid, Natural Disasters

300 die due to freezing weather in Afghanistan

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Deutsche Presse Agentur / January 29, 2008

Kabul_(dpa) _ The number of people killed in heavy snowfall, avalanches and freezing weather around Afghanistan in the past month has increased up to 300, official said Tuesday.

According to the Afghanistan National Disasters Management Authority (ANDMA), 25 provinces have been affected while the western province of Herat, with 137 weather-related fatalities, was the hardest hit.

In the neighboring provinces of Farah, Badghis and Ghor about 125 people have died and many others have become sick because of the cold.

The ANDMA said more than 83,000 farm animals have died over the past month due to the cold weather.

Local authorities in northern Badakhshan, Takhar and nearby provinces reported that dozens of people had died due to harsh winter.

According to Afghan authorities, the country is experiencing one of its harshest winters in many years.

On February 22, Afghan Health Minister Mohammad Amin Fatemi confirmed the death of 180 young children because of respiratory infections, whooping cough and pneumonia.

“In the last month and a half, 180 children under the age of 5 have died and 29 of our 1/8citizens 3/8 have lost their lives because of avalanches and other natural accidents,” he said.

Ebadullah Ebadi, the World Food Program (WFP) spokesman in Afghanistan, told local media that so far the deaths of 211 Afghans, mostly children, have been confirmed.

“As we don’t have access to remote regions, we can’t exactly say if the casualty figures are higher than this or not,” he added.

Written by afghandevnews

January 30, 2008 at 2:48 am

Posted in Natural Disasters

No word on U.S. aid worker kidnapped in Afghanistan

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Tue Jan 29, 4:51 AM ET

KABUL (Reuters) – Afghanistan’s government said it had no information on Tuesday about the fate of a kidnapped U.S. female aid worker, but added a search was going on to find her.

No group has claimed responsibility for the abduction of the 49-year-old woman, identified as Cindy Mizzel, who was seized while wearing an all-covering burqa from her car along with her driver while heading for work on Saturday in the southern province of Kandahar.

“No, we have no information about it at all,” interior ministry spokesman said when asked by Reuters if the government knew how she was or if any group had make a ransom demand.

The U.S. embassy has not made any comment about the woman’s abduction.

She had been living for years in a rented house in Kandahar, part of the main stronghold of Taliban insurgents who have been behind a series of abductions of foreigners and Afghans in recent years.

Taliban spokesmen say the militant group was not involved.

In addition to the Taliban, criminal gangs and drug dealers have also carried out some kidnappings.

Many kidnapped foreign nationals have been freed in the past under various deals while the abductions of Afghans are routine and mostly not reported.

(Reporting by Sayed Salahuddin; Editing by David Fox)

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January 30, 2008 at 2:47 am

Posted in Security

Women in Taliban stronghold protest kidnap of US aid worker

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Tue Jan 29, 7:22 AM ET

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AFP) – Hundreds of women protested on Tuesday against the abduction of a female US aid worker in southern Afghanistan and called on religious leaders to condemn the kidnapping.

Cyd Mizell, 49, and her Afghan driver were seized while travelling to work on Saturday in the southern city of Kandahar. The extremist Taliban say they are trying to find out if any of their members were involved.

Around 500 women gathered in an auditorium normally used for meetings and wedding ceremonies in Kandahar for a demonstration organised by the city’s women’s association.

“We call on Kandahar religious council to condemn this act and encourage the public to help, call on the abductors to release her without any harm or conditions,” read a resolution passed by the meeting.

They also called on tribal elders and the youth community of the province to “help find and release” Mizell.

“We strongly condemn the abduction of a foreign women who was working for Kandahar people and Kandahar women,” it read.

Protester Bibi Amina, 35, said abducting women was contrary to the principles of Islam and Afghan culture.

“Such a cowardly act defames the whole nation. We ask whoever the kidnappers are to free her safely and with no conditions,” she told AFP.

Mizell’s employer is a small Philippines-headquartered community development organisation called the Asian Rural Life Development Foundation (ARLDF).

ARLDF international director Jeff Palmer told AFP: “We are extremely concerned for her and her driver and we are still waiting for the contact.”

Few foreigners live and work in the southern city because of the threat from Taliban insurgents, who are most active in southern and eastern Afghanistan.

Another female participant of the meeting, Shrifa, said the fact that no one had claimed responsibility made them more worried.

“It makes us more worried that no one has claimed responsibility for the abduction.” she said.

Provincial police chief Sayed Aqa Saqib said Tuesday they were still searching for her and no one had contacted them claiming responsibility.

“We are trying every minute to find her. We have not been contacted by anyone so far,” he said.

Homayun Hamidzada, the spokesman for President Hamid Karzai, said investigations were underway “to verify if the abduction has a political motive.”

The Al-Qaeda-linked Taliban militia, in government between 1996 and 2001, was involved in a series of abductions of foreigners last year and has said the tactic was effective in putting pressure on the government and its allies.

Criminal groups have also been behind a rash of kidnappings in recent months and are sometimes believed to pass their hostages onto the Taliban.

Written by afghandevnews

January 30, 2008 at 2:45 am

Posted in Security

Future looking bleak for Afghan fortune tellers

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Sun Jan 27, 2008 7:05pm ET

By Tahir Qadiry

MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan (Reuters) – Perhaps they should have seen it coming, but Afghanistan’s traditional fortune tellers are under fire from religious elders who have branded their ancient practice as backward and un-Islamic.

Dozens of fortune tellers were recently ejected from the surrounds of the beautiful Hazrat Ali shrine in the northern city of Mazar-I-Sharif after religious elders responsible for the mosque’s upkeep tired of their presence.

“Islam does not permit the practice of fleecing simple people,” said Qari Mohammad Qasim, the head of the shrine, adding that action was taken after numerous public complaints.

Part soothsayer, part mathematician and part letter writer, Afghanistan’s “fallben” are an irregular fixture outside mosques and shrines across the country.

Their fortunes have fluctuated for nearly 1,400 years — since Islam was first revealed to Prophet Mohammed — but the practice dates back to when Alexander the Great conquered the country with his army and its multitude of accompanying gods, most of whom required constant consulting, a role for the soothsayers.

Banned and persecuted under the rule of the Taliban, fortune tellers have made a comeback since the hardline Islamic group was ousted in 2001.

For many like Shah Agha, their talent has been a family business for generations. Others, like Sayed Rabbani, learnt their skills in India where astrologers and fortune tellers are respected members of the community and can command huge fees.

But Muslim scholars consider fortune telling to be blasphemy.

“Fortune telling is not permitted in Islamic law. It has been mentioned clearly (in the Koran) that this is against Islamic values,” said Mohammd Ihsan Seaqal, Imam of a Kabul mosque.

“Fortune tellers are misusing the sacred religion for their personal advantage,” he said.

SOOTHSAYERS

Yet still the customers come.

“My daughter is 30 and she is getting old. No-one has proposed to her,” said 51-year-old Zobaida outside a mosque in Mazar-al-Sharif.

“I came here to tell her fortune and find a husband for her. Earlier, I had the same problem with my 23-year old daughter. I referred it to a fortune teller and he attracted a man to my daughter to marry her.”

Rabbani, who has been a palm reader for 15 years, gets to work.

With a magnifying glass, he studies the lines on Zobaida’s hand and then matches them with an old, tattered and densely printed book of diagrams of palms.

Each match corresponds to a mathematical formula which is calculated to provide an answer that points to a specific “sura”, “separah” and “ayat” of the Koran — a bit like the Bible’s books, chapters and verses.

“You see we only provide answers that are given in the Koran,” says Shah Agha, a 31-year-old third generation fortune teller who plies his trade outside a shrine in Kabul.

Agha favors using dice rather than reading palms. His client shakes and throws two wooden dice inscribed with letters from the Dari alphabet which are then matched to ancient mathematical tables which also point to specific Koranic verses.

Once the appropriate verse has been revealed, the fortune teller copies it in flowery script to a piece of paper using a fountain pen filled with ink specific to the problem — red for family, black for wealth, blue for education, green for health.

The verse is repeatedly folded over until it is a tight bundle, then wrapped in cotton thread before being given to the supplicant to keep next to their skin.

“Repeat these verses for a week when you say your prayers,” Agha tells his client, an elderly woman who lifts her burqa from her face and listens intently as he talks.

“If you truly believe in your heart, then, God willing, it will come to pass,” he concludes.

Fortune tellers say most of their clients are women or the elderly seeking guidance for problems affecting their families. Younger people tend to come only when all else has failed.

Sakina, aged 30, is a typical case. Weeping softly, she tells the fortune teller that she has marital problems.

“I have 4 children but my husband has left me and is going to marry another woman. Please do something to stop him”.

While Islam allows a man to take up to four wives if he is able to care equally for them, in practice men frequently re-marry without their first wife’s permission, diluting her influence and jeopardizing her children’s inheritance.

Nargis is a newlywed who has come to a fortune teller.

“It is two years I have been married to a boy, but still we do not have a child,” said the fashionably dressed woman. “A friend told me to come here and seek a solution.”

For those who consult the soothsayers, their problems are universal.

“My mother-in-law is not good with me”, said Shokriya, aged 23.

“I love a boy, but his family does not agree with our marriage,” says another young woman, giggling with her sisters as the fortune teller consults his tables.

The cost of a consultation depends on the largesse of the customer.

“If they can afford nothing, they give us nothing,” said one palm reader. “A richer person might give a dollar and then maybe more if their fortune comes to pass.”

While many scholars are seeking a formal government ban on fortune telling, others are more tolerant of some of their skills.

“Forecasting and foretelling is against Islam”, said Maulawi Qari Mohammad Qasim, the prayer leader of Hazrat Ali shrine from where the soothsayers were recently evicted.

“But if they recite the Koranic words (out loud) for the good of people without doing business, it is alright in Islam”, he said.

(Additional reporting and writing by David Fox in Kabul; editing by Megan Goldin)

Written by afghandevnews

January 29, 2008 at 3:57 am

Posted in Culture and Arts

Freezing weather kills 80 in central Afghanistan

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KABUL, January 28 (RIA Novosti) – At least 80 people have died in recent freezing weather in central Afghanistan’s Ghor province, with three further cold fronts set to hit the country, local media said on Monday.

The total death toll is still unknown. However, the Afghanistan National Disasters Management Authority (ANDMA) put the number of victims at over 300, with children, the elderly and women most vulnerable mainly from respiratory diseases.

In the Kunduz province a 28 year-old woman sold one of her children for $10 to buy medicines for her other children, who were suffering from pneumonia, local TV reported.

On Sunday people in the northern Jowzjan province, where temperatures have plunged to a record -30 degrees Centigrade (-22 Fahrenheit), protested outside the provincial authority building demanding emergency assistance over rising food prices.

The capital Kabul, also hit by sub-zero temperatures, is likely to face power cuts as electricity plants fail to cope with the growing demand.

The cold snap also reached the country’s south, which has seen snowfall for the first time in 20 years.

Written by afghandevnews

January 29, 2008 at 3:56 am

Posted in Natural Disasters