Imagine the effort and inconvenience if, instead of buying bread at the supermarket, every household in your street had to bake their own, every day. That is what happens in Af-ghanistan's Panjshir Valley, where the duplication of labour, and the waste of scarce firewood as each household bakes just a few flat naan loaves a day, contributes to the desperate poverty of the area.
Things are different, though, in a handful of Panjshir villages where Afghan Mother and Child Rescue (AMCR), the charity The Independent on Sunday is supporting in its Christmas appeal, has built communal bakeries. They give an income to the most under-privileged of all the valley's many war widows, most of whom are bringing up children, and women whose husbands are unable to support the family.
"There are very few opportunities for women in these villages," says Rahilah, who helps to supervise the Astana bakery, as she pounds balls of dough into shape. "But this is one thing they can do to earn money." The bakery is only just beginning to pay its way after an initial period of subsidy by AMCR, but at Malaspa, further down the valley, the enterprise is well-established. Since 2002, Rabiya, a 40-year-old widow with three children, and Shafiqa, 45, whose husband is blind and cannot feed their 12 children, have got up every day at 3am to chop wood for the fire and start making dough. With some households also bringing their own dough to be baked, they turn out 21kg of naan a day.
Their reward for this heavy labour seems paltry 25 a month but it makes all the difference to the pair. "I can pay my own way with what I earn here," said Rabiya. "My husband left me a house to live in, but without this work, it would be very difficult to survive." Shafiqa said: "Before the bakery gave me work, life was very hard." Her elder children were all girls, and her sons were too young to help support the family. "We don't have anyone to help us."
The local community decided who should be employed by the bakery, but even though the people of the Panjshir are no supporters of the Taliban, women working outside the home have to overcome highly conservative social attitudes. Male pride can also suffer if a man's wife is earning money while he cannot find work, says Roddy Jones of AMCR: "The neighbours start saying he can't control his wife, or he can't support his family."
The charity enlists village headmen and elders, but when they change, support for the projects can suddenly disappear. Such problems have temporarily closed two of the five bakeries AMCR has built.
Founded by a retired Coldstream Guards officer, Brigadier Peter Stewart-Richardson, the charity seeks to help Afghan women and children in the most direct fashion. Apart from the bakeries, it has built two clinics for mothers and babies, is completing a third, and is looking at suitable locations for a fourth. It has also helped widows to train as tailors, and to provide them with sewing machines. Other income-generating schemes, such as bee-keeping, are being studied.
The Astana bakery, managed by Rahilah's husband, Abdul Ghani, employs four local women. She is in no doubt about its social benefits. "The women are very happy to work here," she said. "It raises standards of living, and it shows everybody what women can do when they are given the chance."
The Independent on Sunday Christmas Appeal
Thanks to the generosity of our readers, the IoS Christmas appeal for Afghan Mother and Child Rescue has raised 10,000, a third of the way to building another clinic for women and their children in one of the world's poorest countries. But more is still needed: please help.
Send cheques, made payable to "Afghan Mother and Child Rescue", to Afghan Mother and Child Rescue 128 Kensington Church Street London W8 4BH
A Gift Aid declaration form, which increases every pound you donate by 28p, can be downloaded at: www.amcr.org.uk/GIFT_AID_DONATION_FORM.pdf
By BACS transfer
Account name: Afghan Mother and Child Rescue
Account number: 00011780
Sort code: 40-52-40
For more information on Afghan Mother and Child Rescue (registered charity no 1097423), visit www.amcr.org.ukReuse content