ISAF: Owning a business in a male-dominated industry can be difficult for a woman in any country, but add the degree of difficulty in a male-dominated society like Afghanistan, and it can be almost impossible -- but don’t tell that to the women of Kabal-based SAWEC. These women are engineers, own construction companies, wear hard hats – even over burqas– and literally wish to build a better Afghanistan through their group, the Society of Afghan Women in Engineering and Construction.
SAWEC is still in its infancy, having been conceived of as support network for female construction and engineer company owners and aspiring students in January of this year. Two leaders from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and one Afghan business woman thought it would be a good way to encourage and support Afghan women in an industry where there wasn’t support, stated Elizabeth Chien, chief of operations and maintenance division of USACE in Kabul, who is one of the idea originators.
“There was some confusion and a level of excitement that we could pull women together with common interests,” said Chien of the initial meeting.
One thing was for sure, the business women and university engineering students were interested. Over the next six months, the women met monthly selecting a name, board members, goals and conducted lots of match-making and lesson sessions.
“These women want to have a voice,” said Army Maj. Erica Iverson, Chief, Synchronization and Initiatives Group (SIG)/ Capacity Building Team, who is a supporter of SAWEC. “They are very determined.” The progress of the organization has been slow, but steady. There are many obstacles the women must overcome in order for their mission to be a success. Even finding a place to meet safely is a challenge in Afghanistan, but USACE has helped provide a secure place, explained Chien.
“Right now their biggest challenge is to stick together. That is not how Afghan culture is set up. It is set up to be very close-knit within your own group and then the groups are extremely competitive,” said Chien. “It’s hard to start an organization and keep people interested. If they want to use it to support, network or share with each other, they are going to have to work at it.”
SAWEC has encountered these issues and has addressed them as they arise, inspiring the attendees.
“I love SAWEC. It is giving Afghan women an opportunity to stand on their feet,” said a woman construction business owner. “They must be brave and take it.”
The newly-formed group is also proving to be a learning experience for all the women. One newly graduated student, who has a construction company with 20 people, said she is building her experience as an owner by learning from other members and taking that knowledge back to her company.
“The older women have a lot to learn from the students. They come in with energy and a new outlook on life because they have been raised in a different era,” said Chien. “At the same time, the young women have a lot to learn from the older business women. They have been around a long time and have a lot of experience.”
SAWEC is still young, but it has already begun to provide the women with support to change the old way of thinking.
“Afghan women work hard and are strong within their families,” said the newly graduated businesswomen. “Women should think more like a man would, because we have the same capabilities that they have.”