Afghan women working in poppy fields prefer other jobs

The Frontier Post,
August 20, 2000

PESHAWAR (Online) - Afghan women prefer to undertake other jobs than work in poppy fields as they consider poppy cultivation as lengthy, arduous and injurious to their health. The United Nations Drug Control Programme (UNDCP) study on “The Role of Women in Opium Poppy Cultivation in Afghanistan” released here says the harvest of poppy is one of those activities that majority of Afghan women wish to avoid and prefer to work within the household compound. The study says that women play a fundamental role in the cultivation of poppy in eastern and northern regions of war-battered Afghanistan and are actively involved in whole process of cultivation.

It says the women believed that they or their kids might become addicted to opium if they continued to cultivate it, but claimed that they had few other economic options. “Now I am 31 years old and I have stopped working in poppy fields. I think opium is my enemy. Because of it, I lost my three years old son. I was putting it in a dish whilst I was harvesting. My son was eating the opium and I did not realise that resulted in his death. Until my death, I will never forgive myself. I’m against it and when I think of it I shiver,” said a woman of Faizabad district in Badakhshan province. It is revealed that the Afghan women are involved in a number of stages of opium cultivation including planting, weeding, thinning, lancing the capsules, collecting poppy, clearing the fields, breaking the capsules, removing the seed, cleaning the seeds and processing byproducts such as oil and soap.

Weeding is considered as a difficult task, requiring as many as 8 hours per day and similarly the lacing of poppy capsules is identified as a stage of cultivation at which many women will prefer not to be involved, citing long days, subsequent sickness, and loss of time for child care and household chores, as negative consequences of their participation. “Our major problem is that weeding poppy fields takes a lot of time. We have problems carrying the seeds to the field and often get sick while lancing and collecting poppy. It gives you headache,” complained a female worker in Kabul. Besides, on-farm income opportunities including cultivation of vegetable crops such as cucumber, onion and sugarcane as well as poultry are also cited as preferential to poppy cultivation, it says. “Involvement of women in agriculture activities has resulted in loss of other skills which they possessed such as embroidery and tailoring. This will seriously affect the future of our daughters,” lambasted a female in Nangarhar province.

The study reveals that whilst there is a recognition that poppy cultivation does not conform with religious mores and that it represents a potential threat to household health, the majority of those women held that there were few alternatives that could currently satisfy the multi-functional role that poppy played in household livelihood strategies in Afghanistan. According to UNDCP report 1999, Afghanistan is the one of the largest opium producer countries in the world. Priority is given to utilising household labour including women and children in cultivation of opium poppy as it is a labour intensive crop and households seek to utilise a variety of different social mechanism by which to access low cost labour in northern and eastern regions, it says. Quoting a female in Kabul, it says, “We are not allowed to work on wheat field, but the men ask us to work on poppy fields because it requires more labour.”

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