Herat Province, with its historic capital at the heart of the Silk Road, is a vital trading center in southwestern Afghanistan. Unfortunately, economic opportunities are most often enjoyed by men. Women and girls who try to advance themselves may face brutal attacks by the Taliban.

Aniss Faiaz believes these conditions must change. She is fighting back by creating employment opportunities for women.

As a regional project coordinator for Society Empowerment Organization throughout 2015, Aniss and her team trained job seekers and those already employed in the skills that companies needed so they could either secure jobs or earn salary increases. Empowering women with the skills for career success is a special mission for Aniss.

“The biggest challenges women face are less job opportunities in Herat, as well as a low level of women’s awareness of their rights and especially their economic rights,” she says.

The Society Empowerment Organization partnered with the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Afghanistan Workforce Development Program to provide vocational training tailored to the needs of the labor market to help bridge the gap between private sector employers and current and prospective employees.

“Although the job opportunities are rare for women, we place a number of women job seekers in the job with reference to their skills, education and experience,” Aniss says.

During her time with Society Empowerment Organization, she registered more than 200 women job seekers and those already employed for targeted training, designed to build skills in key areas her team identified through an assessment of employers’ needs. She was committed, she says, to ensuring that at least 70 percent of the women who walked through her door were placed in positions.

At one job fair alone, Aniss helped 60 job seekers land positions. She says that watching them meet their future employers and sign their contracts fuels her drive and passion for the work.

Photo by Jim Huylebroek
Viewing employment as a means to social empowerment in addition to economic opportunity, Aniss Faiaz is committed to training women in Herat with the skills employers need so they can achieve financial independence in a traditional society where women’s roles are often constrained. Photo by Jim Huylebroek.

A long-term commitment to change

Growing up in the Shindand District of Herat Province, Aniss always aspired to improve the lives of those around her.

“I always wanted to be president of Afghanistan,” she says, which she attributes in part to her deceased father who inspired her with his own interest in politics. 

After earning her bachelor’s degree in public management from the University of Isfahan in Iran in 2008, Aniss returned home and began to make waves.

She served as a capacity development facilitator with the U.S. Ambassador’s Small Grants Program to Support Gender Equality, another USAID-funded initiative, and went on to join the United Nations Development Programme as a regional gender officer.

Equally passionate about youth empowerment, Aniss is the leader of the United Enlightened Association, an organization dedicated to building the skills of youth, especially female university students. The organization’s magazine features young writers covering social and political issues, such as how to strengthen democracy and how to gain recognition for women’s rights.

She aspires to earn a master’s degree in public management so she can apply even more knowledge and experience to empower women and youth and change Herat in the process.

“It is my wish that I can continue my education in a developed country because I would like to get more experience from other women around the world. I want to share my findings with Afghan women when I come back,” she says. “I admire everybody who defends human rights, especially women around the world.”

Photo by Jim Huylebroek
Photo by Jim Huylebroek

Working through conflict

In the midst of ongoing conflict, life for Afghan women is wrought with obstacles, especially for those like Aniss working to shake up traditional gender roles and empower women with education and employment.

“I think women are treated as a commodity in Afghan society by men and are always considered second class,” she says.

Although she is too young to have experienced it herself, Aniss is well-versed in Afghanistan’s history and what life was like in a time when women were treated on a more equal footing.

“Afghan women had an active role in society and receiving education at the schools, colleges and university in the 1970s and 1980s,” she explains. “They were present in the social and political arenas until the Taliban took over Afghanistan and the political system was changed. Women were deprived of their basic rights such as freedom to dress as they wished and be present with men in the work and education environment.”

Working in Herat in 2015, Aniss says she faced barriers simply because she is a woman, but she also had to contend with a deteriorating security situation, including unpredictable Taliban ambushes and rogue attacks on women and girls.

“The biggest problem for me is going to visit projects or conducting training in certain areas, but in spite of these challenges and problems that I faced in my work in the past seven years and will face in the future, I know I will continue my work to assist needy and poor women,” she says.

Aniss believes her determination can be an example for other women, encouraging them to persist through struggle to achieve their rights.

Though it will be an uphill battle to get there, she envisions a future Afghanistan where women have even more rights than they did before the Taliban. She dreams of an Afghanistan where men and women are truly equal.

A dream bigger than jobs

Although Aniss has focused on empowering women to strive for employment and economic independence, her dreams are bigger than changing the workforce alone.

With each new commitment she secured from the private sector to employ more women and with each graduated trainee who landed a job, Aniss knew she was creating a ripple effect.

“I am working toward changing the life of my community,” she declares. “If we don’t bring change in the community, I believe nothing will happen. My vision is to have a secure, peaceful and developed country…and for all people to have equal access to welfare and gender equality.”

By Jillian Slutzker