Raising chickens and changing lives in northern Afghanistan

05-12-2011 Feature

The ICRC's assistance activities are helping to create incomes for vulnerable rural communities. Jessica Barry, the ICRC's communication coordinator in Afghanistan, went to visit one such programme being run by village women.

One recent morning in the front room of a simple house in a village in Samagan, a group of mostly middle-aged women gathered to talk about how their lives had changed over the past year. All of them had one thing in common, apart from their age and their village roots. They were entrepreneurs in a poultry rearing, food-for-work project being piloted by the ICRC.

The women entered the room in ones and twos. They sat themselves down and tucked their legs under the rose-coloured cotton bedding covering a traditional sandali stove. Soon there was a crowd of faces framed in bright patterned shawls around the fire, and a buzz of conversation. It was rainy and cold outside and the warmth under the covers was welcoming.

"Chickens are like small babies," Sarwar, the mother of 12 children volunteered. "They need a lot of care."

"Yes," agreed Jamila, who was sitting next to her. "And like babies if you don't care for them they don't grow."

Women learned how to hatch eggs in incubators

All the women agreed that the project had helped to improve their lives. It was not easy at first, they acknowledged, but they had received six months instruction in poultry rearing and business management from trainers provided by the ICRC. Although many rural families in Afghanistan keep chickens, the mortality rate of local poultry is high, and the women had learned how to care for stronger breeds, keep them healthy, and market their eggs.  

"We were also taught how to hatch eggs in incubators," another woman remarked.  "This means we can raise chickens to sell as well. It was quite difficult to learn, but now we know what to do.  Two of us look after the incubators during the day, and two of the men in the village do the same at night."

Additional chicken feed was needed

The whole enterprise seemed efficiently organized.  However, for the women, something more was needed and they asked for additional chicken feed. "When the hens ate the corn that was provided by the ICRC at the start of the programme, they produced many eggs," they explained, "but now they are laying less often as the corn is finished and they are scavenging about for food." In fact, in some of  the villages where the programme is being piloted, women have already started preparing their own special corn mix for their poultry, under guidance from the trainers.

A cooperative venture

The poultry programme, which is a first of its kind for the ICRC in Afghanistan, is being implemented as a cooperative venture involving the ministry of agriculture, private suppliers of water troughs, feeders and corn, and local village communities supported by the ICRC. It is currently being implemented over a one year period in twelve villages in four provinces of northern Afghanistan. The local authorities helped with the selection of the villages and now monitor the programme implementation. Twenty women participants from each village were chosen by the community from amongst the poorest families.

Sacred opportunity to meet and socialize

Not only does the scheme give the women a skill, it also allows them to meet and socialize, the benefit of which cannot be underestimated in Afghanistan's very traditional and male-oriented society.

Halima was one of the women gathered around the sandali stove that morning.  "I have four grown sons," she remarked, "but one is a drug addict, another was frightened by a dog six years ago and has lost his mind, and a third has chronic back pain. Being part of this group helps me to deal with my problems."

At least one of the women sitting there was a widow; others had husbands who were out of work. All of them were poor. But on another level they were luckier than their sisters living in more conflict-affected parts of Afghanistan.

A rare sense of normalcy

It was perhaps the sense of normalcy that gave the village its special atmosphere in this land of night raids, and mined roads, checkpoints and militias, military forces and army convoys.  As the women led the way to see their hens along muddy paths between the tall mud brick walls of their compounds, orchard leaves were turning to gold and falling from the trees.  Large dogs lay asleep in the dirt, and despite the cold the village breathed a timeless quiet.  

In each yard there were chickens of all ages and colours -- from mottled white, to chestnut and grey. "We keep the chicks inside the houses where it is warm," the women explained," and the grown hens live in the hen houses we have built from mud bricks. This was our own contribution to the programme. We learned how to build the structures as part of our training."

More than 240 women participated in eight villages

In the months since the scheme began more than 240 women have participated in the eight cluster villages. Each has raised around 15 chickens and collected an average of 20 eggs from each hen per month. Eggs that are surplus to the families' needs are sold in the local market for seven Afghanis each. The sale of the eggs provides only a modest income but one that allows the women to buy other essential supplies.

Men happy that their women have money of their own

"What do your men folk say about your work?" the group was asked. "They are happy," came the unanimous reply. "They like it because we don't have to ask them for money for everything, now that we have some of our own."  

"They like the contribution we make to the household economy," commented Bibi Haji, the eldest women there, whose son, Khan Mohammad, is the secretary of the local village council or "shura".  

Before the women departed back to their compounds, Zia jan shared her thoughts.  "The children like it when I cook eggs with onion and potato," she volunteered. "And I sometimes fry the eggs in oil."

"Yes, I do that, too." Jamila replied. "And we serve eggs to our guests when they come to call."

The women nodded in agreement and said goodbye. "We could not always have done that before," they said in parting.


Each woman raises up to 15 chickens and sells the eggs that are surplus to their family's needs 

Each woman raises up to 15 chickens and sells the eggs that are surplus to their family's needs
© ICRC / J. Barry

The women go to inspect the eggs being incubated in a specially constructed building 

The women go to inspect the eggs being incubated in a specially constructed building
© ICRC / J. Barry

The women were taught how to use the incubators during their six months training 

The women were taught how to use the incubators during their six months training
© ICRC / J. Barry

Like small babies, chicks need a lot of care, said Salwar, a mother of 12 

"Like small babies, chicks need a lot of care," said Salwar, a mother of 12
© ICRC / J. Barry