Finding a job in Afghanistan is tough, and for young women even tougher. But with well-designed skills training and shifting attitudes, that may be changing.

Two new polls, by Gallup and the Asia Foundation, find unemployment a top cause for concern among Afghans, with education and domestic violence also high on the list of worries for women. But while overall suffering is high, the Asia Foundation found increasing interest among women in joining the labor force—and growing agreement that it is appropriate for women to work outside the home: Nearly 68 percent of Afghans overall said women “should be allowed to work outside the home,” up from 63 percent a year earlier.

Still, relatively few women work outside the home, and those who do risk social stigma, harassment, and discrimination. Even women with supportive families are constrained by lack of access to public space, and safety and security pose a major concern.

Beyond developing “hard” skills or technical know-how and “soft” skills such as communication and professionalism, Afghan women face biased attitudes and norms. With limited mobility and small social networks, many simply give up.

”The life-skills training was crucial to transform my internship at the Department of Electricity and Water Supply in Balkh into a full-time job. It taught me how to interact with colleagues and build new collegial relationships.”  —Program graduate

The Female Youth Employment Initiative (FYEI)—a pilot project implemented by the Ministry of Education of Afghanistan with support from the World Bank Group’s Adolescent Girls Initiative Trust Fund—aims to promote the economic empowerment of young women by supporting their transition from school to productive employment. Its fundamental challenge: How do we create simple yet efficient safety networks so that no woman must fall through the cracks during this crucial transition?

The project emphasizes participatory community involvement, provides relevant career training in job skills and life skills, and offers supportive placement services. These services benefit from close links with the private sector, placing young women in internships and job search centers. Women who receive training can access job search centers for assistance with resume-building, interview training, and introductions to employers.

While we aimed initially to train and employ 1,300 female high school graduates aged 18-30 in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif  and four districts in the northern province of Balkh, we were quickly oversubscribed: 2,822 female high school graduates joined the program, half of them younger than 20.

Some 88 percent of the 1,300 trainees chosen completed the eight-month training while and 77 percent went on to internships. To some extent, this reflects the context in Afghanistan, where most people cannot afford not to be employed. Data are unreliable, however, as more than 80 percent of the population works in the informal sector.

What accounts for this success? Project design and implementation were equally important:

First, the project was designed to be community-centric, fully transparent, and multi-sectoral. “Social mobilizers” spent countless hours building consensus among communities, families, schools, and different private and public sector players about the importance of allowing young women from the community to work. The effort paid off, as community members collectively developed a vision for what the program should accomplish and helped overcome obstacles along the way. One hurdle was convincing parents to send their daughters to training and then jobs. But after numerous meetings, we discovered that what parents really needed was assurance that their girls would be safe and a greater understanding of their job options. Once we addressed these needs, parents became the primary champions for the project.

Second, we saw socio-emotional and life skills training as the basis for economic empowerment. We paid attention to Afghan women’s unique experience of trauma, decades of war, and rigid gender norms around work and public space to equip them emotionally for the workplace environment. We also paid attention to developing intangible skills that provide a competitive edge. These include helping them feel empowered, preparing them for work with a range of colleagues, and guiding them through the job search—helping them overcome barriers associated with low social capital.

Third, job search centers focused on clients and located near training centers created an important communal safe space for women to mobilize their skills and connect with employers. Physical proximity was vital, allowing the women to move seamlessly from one to another. The women also used this space to share and solve problems related to their internships or job searches. Most trainees ended up in internships with banks, companies, or stores with a per diem to cover food and transportation. Some were approached by the Provincial Education Department about teaching positions.

Families found the job search centers safer than more traditional options. The centers also formed hubs where vetted private companies with links to the program recruited young women directly—and this proactive engagement with the private sector helped these young women connect their training and aptitude to meaningful jobs.

We offered consistent support during all phases of the project, building community support through broad engagement and developing a mechanism to provide timely assistance to trainees as well as other stakeholders.

Making this project a success required time and effort. Building employee capacity and relationships with communities and stakeholders took years. Providing a safe environment for the young female labor force in Mazar-i-Sharif was crucial.

“The life-skills training was crucial to transform the internship at the Department of Electricity and Water Supply in Balkh into a full-time job,” said one graduate of the FYEI, who asked to be identified as Ms. Benazir. “It taught me how to interact with colleagues and build new collegial relationships.”

She is now a salaried employee following a three-month internship and provides financial support to her family of four. For the young women of Afghanistan, programs such as FYEI are a promising path forward.

This article was first published by the World Bank’s Voices blog. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Jana El-Horr is a social development specialist at the World Bank.

Image: A girl smiles as she walks after visiting the Sakhi shrine in Kabul March 26, 2014. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra.