Afghan women and opium

An interesting result of the labour-intensive nature of opium production is its effect on the rural household economy, the division of labour and opportunities for Afghan women. In an otherwise ultra-traditional Islamic society opium offers women some degree of independence, through access to cash and status through their labours.

In a context of rural poverty and a chronic cycle of debt for rural families, the opportunity to grow the lucrative cash crop is seen as a blessing by many rural households. Easy to sell, albeit illicit, the opium enables the poor farmer to access credit, cash income, land and labour.

When asked by IRIN why she cultivated an illicit crop, Bibi Deendaray, a 55-year-old female farmer in Kandahar province replied: "In fact I should say it is not an illicit crop but rather a blessing which saves the lives of my children, grandchildren and two widowed daughters. In general, it is the only means of survival for thousands of women-headed households, women and children in our village whose men are either jobless or were killed during the war".

However, the labour demands of poppy are high, requiring households to maximise their use of labour. "An absence of alternative income opportunities…has led to women's labour being perceived as having a low-opportunity cost", claimed the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) June 2000 report, ' The Role of Women in Opium Poppy Cultivation in Afghanistan'. Although this report was written when the Afghans were under Taliban rule, the conditions have not changed. The same conditions also apply for children who are often used, from a young age, to work the poppy fields. In some areas teachers claim that most children are absent from school during weeding and harvest-time due to the labour needs on their household plots of poppy.

The religious practice of 'purdah' in Afghanistan restricts the rural woman from seeking off-farm alternative ways of livelihood. 'Purdah' in effect requires the woman to maintain hidden from men, while conducting reproductive and productive tasks in the compound. Working outside the compound is normally rare, but with poppy, women actively participate in the various stages of the cultivation process, which demands intensive manual attention during its six-month growing cycle. "Women play a significant role in opium cultivation," declared the UNODC study. This contrasts to the low-level involvement women play in the cultivation of wheat outside the compound, estimated to be approximately 13 percent of women surveyed.

Dr Anis Aghdar, head of the Women's Affairs Department in Faizabad, Badakshan province, felt that opium cultivation has both positive and negative aspects as far as women are concerned. She told IRIN: "When a woman grows poppy she has a chance to earn an income and become a breadwinner like a man". For certain female-headed households opium allows women to earn cash, and in some families men allow their wives to keep a portion of the profits or raw opium for their work, according to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working in rural areas. Dr Aghdar predicted that "Eradication will have a serious effect on women cultivating poppy. Like someone in a job who is suddenly sacked with nothing to fall back on".

But the involvement of women in opium is a double-edged sword, providing new opportunities for some women while also giving them increased workloads where they have to perform their normal duties and help with opium. The opium cultivation work is often arduous for the women. As one female testified in the UNODC report: "As we carry out heavy jobs we are always suffering from illnesses. During the weeding we are in the fields for three to four days consecutively and we feel severe pain in our legs. We suffer from headaches during the collection of opium".

The workload for the women is further amplified when a reciprocal labour agreement is arranged between the household and an itinerant harvester. According to the findings of the UNODC report, outside labourers may assist a household in the harvesting of opium in exchange for three meals per day prepared by the women. Also, as family members help other households with the harvesting, the women are left with an increased workload. Apart from the cultivation, women also oversee the livestock, dairy production, the processing of grain, and fruit and poultry management.

The UNODC report also noted that the scant attention women were able to give their daughters restricts them from transferring useful skills to them such as embroidery and tailoring. Were it not for the use of unpaid family labour, the real profitability of poppy could be significantly reduced, the study suggested.

Analysts from the community development NGO, the Aga Khan Foundation, told IRIN that patterns of social relations and divisions of labour were changing in some areas due to women's access to income. "Traditional roles are changing, with some women paid by their husbands," an Aga Khan representative told IRIN. In some cases, he said, "the increased income for women had led to positive changes in nutritional levels and consumption patterns amongst women and children".

Despite the participation of women in the agricultural process, the substantial decision- making powers are in the hands of the men. A member of the women's rights agency, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), explained to IRIN that "Afghan society is backward and women have long been deprived of their rights. They wake up around 4:30 in the morning to do the cooking and cleaning and children and they remain within the family compound". The agency felt that lack of geographical access and the practice of 'purdah' made it very difficult for alternative livelihood projects to target women who would probably have little choice but to continue cultivating opium. "NGOs cannot reach many women or many areas, giving rural women few alternatives," the agency said.

Håkan Josefsson, aid administrator of the Swedish Afghanistan Committee, which has a long history in assisting rural Afghan farmers, told IRIN: "Education is the most important solution for women to find other ways of income other than cultivating opium poppy".

The general view of those interviewed by IRIN in Afghanistan was that despite some interesting short-term benefits, opium cultivation could not offer sustainable solutions to women for either their economic needs, nor for increased rights for women. Not least, women involved in opium are setting themselves in opposition to their country's new laws and are cultivating an illicit crop which will, one day, be eradicated by the government.