Uncertain future for Afghan businesswomen as West leaves

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The United States and its allies have put promoting women's rights at the core of their 12-year mission in Afghanistan and Liza Ghausi Nooristani has profited nicely from their intervention.

Nooristani is one of the few women in conservative, male-dominated Afghanistan to set up and run a relatively big company. And she has done it in the mountainous eastern warzone.

She has been undaunted by the danger and the death threats and her construction company has been building schools, roads and government offices, largely paid for by a flood of aid money that followed the arrival of U.S. troops.

"In the eastern part of Afghanistan, which is dangerous for security, I was the first woman to have a construction company, and I travelled without a bodyguard or gun," said Nooristani, chief executive her firm, Mutaharek Construction Company.

She won her first contract in 2007, to build a village school worth $10,000. Since then, her company has handled a host of projects, with the biggest worth as much as $800,000.

But now Nooristani faces the prospect of the withdrawal of Western troops.

For Afghan women in general, the exit of most foreign troops by the end of next year could mean a slip back in the rights they have managed to secure over the past decade.

For Nooristani, a round-faced woman with sad eyes, the withdrawal of Western forces and the aid programs they have promoted also means a sharp fall in business.

"As soon as the provincial reconstruction team left they stopped the projects," Nooristani said in an interview, referring to joint military-civilian teams set up to consolidate military gains with development.

Nooristani is not only going to miss the projects but also the Western way of doing business.

"I won't take a project from the government because the government's people are corrupt," she said.

"The government does not think women have any worth, nobody has time for females ... they just say women are just for the home to wash their clothes."

An official for the USAID development agency said Afghan businesswomen were still "outside the inner circle".

While they had made progress, they faced difficulties in doing business in a very bureaucratic system largely run by men.

"Licenses for exports and other permits are the main concerns of women," the official said.

The agency has launched a $200 million program to help women aged 18-30 build up their skills and create more than3,500 small businesses.

Nooristani has her enemies, some of whom object to her doing what she does because she's a woman.

"First of all the Taliban, but also common people, because of the way they think," she said with a shrug.

She has received death threats and escaped a bomb attack.

Despite the danger, her husband and six children support her, while her sisters, all of them housewives, admire her, she said. But some relatives take a dim view of her work.

Nooristani spent part of her childhood in Pakistan to escape Afghanistan's interminable conflict. She later studied atuniversity in both Kabul and New Delhi.

She is driven, she says, by her determination to help women in the countryside gain access to education.

With the development projects drying up, Nooristani has setup a firm called New Lalazar Limited, which supplies and services office equipment, mainly to foreigners in Kabul.

If the new business founders, she said she would return toher home province of Nuristan in the east to help the people, perhaps teaching in the schools she built.

"The people there don't know a car, they don't know electricity because they don't have it, so I'm going to work for those people, I'm going to help out those people.