Afghanistan is not only one of the poorest countries in the world, it also ranks among the most gender-unequal societies. The latter is reflected in its restrictive social norms and gender roles that translate into large gaps in economic empowerment of women compared to men. Only 29 percent of women in Afghanistan participate in the labor force, and only 27 percent of these women are engaged in paid employment (ALCS 2013-14). While female wage employment barely exists, women rely on self-employment as a more practical way of earning income: self-employment activities can be carried out at home, close to the household chores, and in accordance with gender norms and roles. However, these female small-scale enterprises are hold back as they lack crucial factors for business success. Self-employed women are to a large extent excluded from trade and purchase networks, financial services like loans, and higher education by the restrictive gender norms that prohibit mobility and interactions of women with the other sex outside of their home. At the same time command over resources (e.g. own generated income or acquired loans) is usually controlled by husbands or other household members: Women lack a voice in household spending and investments, with 90 percent of households stating that, for instance, the decisions on taking up or paying back loans are made mainly by men (NRVA 2007/8). Against this backdrop, any program that aims to effectively tackle poverty and increase female economic empowerment in Afghanistan needs a comprehensive strategy that takes the cultural context into account.
We study a comprehensive intervention designed to encourage female economic inclusion in 4 provinces (11 districts) in Afghanistan. The intervention builds on mostly female pre-existing local savings groups, which are combined into 90 clusters of 5 to 15 groups each. For the 45 randomly selected treatment clusters, we use these clusters to install "platforms for economic empowerment". The intervention studied here takes a graduation approach — i.e. it responds to the complexity of the matter by easing multiple economic constraints faced by poor women at the same time: The community-owned platforms are used to diminish credit constraints by disbursing externally funded small revolving loans, feed business and vocational training to enhance human capital where needed, and provide socio-emotional skill training known to be helpful to entrepreneurs. Most importantly, the intervention does not stop there, but takes into account the multiple additional struggles related to gender roles and social norms that hinder women in particular to run a successful business in Afghanistan. The empowerment platforms at cluster level are intended to act as catalysts for network formation beyond the local groups. Thereby, the platforms
• enable women to take advantage of economies of scale (e.g. by pooling risk at a larger scale, finance larger-sized loans to members),
• aggregate women’s production inputs and outputs and facilitate market linkages (e.g. by providing market intermediation assistance, organization of regional trade fairs, identifying and facilitating purchasing and trade partnerships),
• foster agency and mutual support against restrictive social norms.
We investigate the effects of the intervention on outcomes related to business performance, female economic empowerment, and well-being.