Helping to tap missed opportunities for women in Central Asia

Date: 25.02.2014

“High-quality mohair yarn, blankets and carpets produced by rural women in Iran, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are selling at outlets in Europe and the USA. The move, which is helping to increase the incomes of both women artisans and small-scale livestock breeders, has its roots in a recent four-year project funded by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and implemented by ICARDA.   Launched in 2009, the project sought to increase job opportunities and income options for poor rural populations, especially women, by introducing improved production and processing techniques for value-added fiber, and helping to channel raw and finished products towards export markets. As a result, profits of women artisans rose nearly sevenfold in some communities. The linkage with foreign markets received a boost when two US-based companies, Knit Outta the Box and Clothroads, stepped in to help local suppliers reach buyers in the USA and Europe. Some products have already found their first customers.

Meanwhile, SPINNA, a UK-based non-profit organization, has been working with a United Nations (UN) project in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan since 2009 to increase the competitiveness of the clothing and textiles sector. The project seeks to help women entrepreneurs in the fashion and textile industry. Seeing significant potential in the region, SPINNA is now planning to set up hubs in each Central Asian country, as well as in Afghanistan.

Studies by the International Monetary Fund, the UN and the World Bank show that women who work can make a substantial contribution to economies, producing long-term benefits to GDP growth and enterprise development. However, levels of women’s economic engagement remain low in a number of developing countries. Many economists and other experts believe this signals a missed opportunity.

Untapped potential

Central Asia is a case in point. According to World Bank Indicators (2009), women make up 44.1 per cent of the labor force in Tajikistan and 42.2 per cent in Kyrgyzstan. Despite this relatively high share, figures from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) show that in most Central Asian countries, less than one-quarter of all small and medium-scale enterprises are owned or managed by women.

One reason for women’s under-representation in the business sector is their lack of knowledge, skills and financing, caused by poor access to education and credit. Yet evidence shows* that increasing women’s involvement in enterprise benefits the economy as a whole, and small and medium-scale businesses run by women are often more profitable than those managed by men.

International research, donor and development organizations are now doing more to address this issue and in recent years, a number of initiatives have been launched to boost women’s role in the economy and public life. The CGIAR Consortium is no exception. For example, all CGIAR Research Programs (CRPs), must develop a clear strategy on gender. In Central Asia, where a high percentage of the population lives in rural areas, the CRP on Dryland Systems is focusing on creating employment opportunities for rural women as a way of increasing incomes and spurring economic development in the Action Sites in that region.

Most rural women in these countries are stay-at-home mothers, who mainly work in farming or make home-made knitwear and woven products for sale at local markets and occasionally abroad. However, their earning power is limited. Women artisans, for example, lack technical skills and access to markets to increase their incomes. Often, the problem is exacerbated by poor quality raw materials. With the help of partners, the IFAD-ICARDA project has done much to improve the situation in rural areas of the three countries targeted.

In rural households, however, women employed in farming face other problems. For example, most of them know little or nothing about best practices of sustainable agricultural management. Training women farmers, and helping them to access finance, can produce valuable results. Better policies and more government incentives are also needed to address inequalities in areas such as land rights – which continue to be an issue in some Central Asian countries. UN Women, an organization dedicated to gender equality and women’s empowerment, has been working to improve women’s access to land since 2001 and has since expanded its reach through a number of programs in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. A land reform project set up by US development agency USAID is providing support to ten legal aid centers that offer farmers – mainly women – information on their rights though training sessions and workshops in Tajikistan. Advisory, mediation and representation services put farmers in a better position to protect their rights in land-related disputes.

Cross-border cooperation

In many cases, there is good scope for replication. Central Asian countries have much in common and would benefit from increased regional cooperation. More networks of women’s groups and organizations would increase opportunities for enterprise and collaboration. In 2011, the US Department of State teamed up with several other organizations to hold the Strategies for Success: Central Asia and Afghanistan Women’s Economic Symposium in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. The event helped to kickstart a regional initiative, which aims to increase women’s economic opportunities and expand cross-border cooperation between women in Central Asia and Afghanistan. As a result, a Steering Committee was elected from businesswomen and civil society experts in the region to help coordinate ongoing support by the US government, national governments and donor and private sector partners. A range of follow-up activities in Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, including grants and study tours to the US, have also been mapped out.

Among these is a one-year program funded by the US embassy in Uzbekistan.The Central Asia and the Caucasus Association of Agricultural Research Institutions (CACAARI) began implementing the program in 2013, in partnership with the Ministry of Agriculture and Water Resources (MAWR) of Uzbekistan, the Uzbek Scientific Production Center for Agriculture, ICARDA, and Tashkent State Agrarian University.

The initiative specifically targets women’s farmer groups, and aims to establish information and advisory extension centers, which will serve as hubs of information and professional skills development for women farmers in Uzbekistan and other Central Asian countries, as well as the Caucasus. The program team recently helped to set up one such center at Tashkent State Agrarian University. Women farmers and entrepreneurs can now obtain free qualified advice and consultation on issues ranging from improving farming businesses and expanding production to entering new markets in the region. For tech-savvy women farmers, the center maintains regularly updated websites at and

Training tailored to specific needs is also on offer at the center. Following an extensive survey of women farmers’ needs on 450 farms in Uzbekistan, CACAARI, ICARDA and MAWR arranged the first training course for 40 leading women farmers in November 2013. These women are expected to train more than 120 other women farmers in their regions. The program will be organizing similar courses in Fergana and Samarkand, Uzbekistan, and CACAARI is planning more programs in the region to disseminate the experience.

Given the special challenges and inequalities that women and young people face when it comes to tapping income-earning opportunities, the CRP on Dryland Systems recently decided to make gender and youth a standalone Intermediate Development Objective (IDO) – one of a range of goals that guide the implementation of all CRPs. The ultimate objective is to replicate success in other countries and foster regional cooperation between women farmers and entrepreneurs. Experience shows that rural women are keen to learn and develop. All they need is a little help.”

This post was written by Dr Jozef Turok, Head of the CGIAR Program Facilitation Unit for Central Asia and the Caucasus and Regional Coordinator of ICARDA, based in Tashkent, based in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. ICARDA is a member of the CGIAR Consortium, and leads the CGIAR Research Program on Dryland Systems.





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