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Oklahoma institute extending help to Afghan businesswomen

Since 2007, each year about 15 women from Afghanistan and Rwanda travel to Northwood University in Midland, Michigan, to receive business training under IEEW’s Peace Through Business program. (BridgeTower Media News Service)

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK — Over the last 15 years, 597 Afghan women business owners trained under the Peace Through Business curriculum have created 8,000 jobs in their home country.

Now that the Taliban has returned to power in Afghanistan, many of those women are determined to keep their businesses going – but they are going to need some help, said Terry Neese, the Oklahoma businesswoman who founded the Institute for the Economic Empowerment of Women and its Peace Through Business program.

One of the first Afghan women to complete the program – a class of 12 who graduated in 2007 – will be visiting Oklahoma City next week. Manizha Wafeq, IEEW’s Afghanistan in-country facilitator, will speak at Oklahoma City’s Cole Community Center on Monday. IEEW’s event is entitled, “Afghan Women: Stories of Devastation, Resilience, and Hope.”

Wafeq will share with attendees her experience with the Taliban’s takeover of the country, along with a homemade Afghan meal.

Watching Kabul fall was “heartbreaking for all of us,” said Neese.

“We have been in touch with many of the women,” Neese said. “Many of them would like to keep their businesses going, and so we’re trying to figure out a way to help them…

“To be honest, for the first two weeks none of us could figure out what we needed to do, how are we going to handle this, how are they going to continue to keep their businesses going,” Neese said. “And in talking with them, many of them want to keep their businesses going – they just need the money.”

IEEW is putting together a few programs to address the need. One program will provide a cash prize for the top three winning sales pitches from women business owners in Afghanistan and in Rwanda.

Women in Afghanistan with retail clothing, jewelry or dried fruit businesses – which Neese says is a major industry in Afghanistan – may be able to continue selling their products online, though shipping may prove to be a challenge.

“It’s expensive, but we’re looking at putting together an online sales platform for them so they can sell their wares on the platform,” Neese said.

Neese first visited Afghanistan in 2006, meeting women who were ready to start businesses in a country that was changing for women.

“Many of them were doing clothes, jewelry, things like that,” Neese said. “Today, after 15 years, that is not the case. They are doing construction, agriculture, e-commerce, health and beauty, manufacturing, retail – I mean, you name it.”

Now, the country is changing again.

“Their lives are very difficult,” Neese said. “They fear for their lives and their freedoms. Everything they’ve known for the past 20 years is gone, and the era of freedom and education for women is over. However, Manizha will say that the Taliban is not as bad as it was in the 1990s, and they are allowing women to do many things that the Taliban in the 1990s did not allow. We’ve just got to stay positive.”

Wafeq has spent the last five years canvasing the country of Afghanistan, bringing business training to women in rural provinces as well as the big cities. Each year, 15 women are also brought to the U.S. for business training, which occurs from January through March.

“We are already putting out information to women business owners in Afghanistan that if they want to take our classes and they want to do it virtually, they need to apply,” Neese said. “We already have two people two women business owners that have completed their applications for 2022.”

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