Thursday, July 9, 2009

Weaving Their Way to Independence: How One Non-profit Organization Is Fostering Female Empowerment and Development in Afghanistan

The book “Be the Change,” is a compilation of interviews and profiles of some of the world’s most successful philanthropists. One philanthropist’s work in Afghanistan is particularly impressive because it has grasped, all at once, the interconnectedness of development in terms of education, employment and access to healthcare.

Connie Duckworth and her “hope by design” non-profit organization, Arzu, provide sustainable income to the women of Afghanistan by providing materials, which enable women (particularly widows) to create and sell high-quality Afghan rugs to high-paying American customers. One rug already exists in the White House.

Yet, Duckworth’s organization goes one step further. As Duckworth states, “It’s not about entitlement. It’s about dignity.” So, in exchange for supplies and a 150% profit of each rug, Afghan weavers must sign a social contract. Every family must send all its children to school and all women (regardless of age) must attend Arzu-sponsored literacy and numeracy classes. Additionally, in order to combat the second highest infant mortality rate in the world, Afghan women must also register with Arzu and agree to travel (at no cost) to health care centers for pre and postnatal care. These rules are mandatory and enforced.

Much like Afghanistan itself, the Afghan rug-making industry has been ravaged by 23 years of constant warfare, resulting in a disrupted supply chain and displaced artists. Afghan women have been weaving for centuries, but until now, the sale of these rugs has been conducted through countless middlemen who often leave female artists out of compensation altogether. Now, with Arzu’s help, 700 women engage in their economy, free from the dangers of economic slavery.

Connie Duckworth's story is that of the first female sales and trading partner at Goldman Sachs who, after years of success, joined the Afghan Women's Council and realized she could not only help other women, but also enable them to become financially, intellectually and physically independent. Arzu is a brilliant model for development and female empowerment.

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