Thugs Plague Women Entrepreneurs

Small-business owners are attempting to rebuild Afghanistan with the help of loan programs. But criminal thugs have made these enterprising women targets for kidnapping and extortion.

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.

Targeted by gangs seeking to profit from their success, female entrepreneurs find their safety at increasing risk.

While the United States debates the fate of Afghanistan and the foreign forces now stationed in it, a small but significant network of Afghan businesswomen faces a threat far more immediate than Taliban resurgence: unchecked criminal thuggery crushing their fledgling ventures and robbing them of their livelihoods. Targeted by criminal gangs seeking to profit from their success—sometimes with the help of jealous neighbors—these entrepreneurs now find their safety at increasing risk in a poor and battered country. Afghanistan’s growth depends on the economic contributions of business owners like themselves.

Interest in business has grown among Afghan women during the reconstruction efforts of the past eight years. A number of women discovered the power of entrepreneurship during the Taliban years, when all other avenues to economic survival were closed. When the international community flooded Afghanistan with foreign aid following the Taliban government’s 2001 collapse, many donors launched business training and livelihood projects aimed at women’s economic empowerment. Some of these projects were too short-term in focus and ham-handed in execution to have a lasting impact, but others, such as business training from the NGO Mercy Corps, mentoring and skills-building by the nonprofit Bpeace, markets-linked horticulture initiatives from the NGO MEDA, and matchmaking for military contracts sponsored by the NGO Peace Dividend Trust, sparked genuine and sustained interest in the power of women-owned businesses to improve the economic lot of Afghan families.

Today a group of serious businesswomen are fighting to keep their operations alive despite meager infrastructure, expensive logistics, constant power shortages, limited market access and pervasive corruption. And if all that were not enough to stymie an aspiring entrepreneur anywhere in the world, let alone in Afghanistan, insecurity now looms as the largest and most intractable threat.

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.)

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.

“Pakistan looks even more troubled than Afghanistan now,” says Habiba, considering her next steps over a cup of afternoon tea just after her two dozen kindergartners have left for the day. “I am not sure where we can go that is safe.”

* name changed for security purposes.

Get Involved: BPeace supports women entrepreneurs in post-conflict societies. MercyCorps trains war survivors on starting their own businesses. MEDA offers microfinance loans with a focus on agriculture. Peace Dividend Trust conducts research on the effectiveness of foreign aid and humanitarian investments in Afghanistan.

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Gayle Tzemach Lemmon covered presidential politics as a producer at ABC News in Washington. Since 2005, she has been reporting on women entrepreneurs starting small and midsize businesses in post-conflict economies such as Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Rwanda. She is working on a book scheduled for 2010 publication by HarperCollins about a young Afghan entrepreneur whose business supported her family and community during the Taliban years.