Economic problems and a scarcity of decent jobs are forcing many women to do hazardous and hard work, like cleaning and tanning sheep’s wool and sheepskins in the factories of Herat Province.

In Herat, about 200 women work under the worst health conditions at a company that exports wool and sheepskin. They are on the job from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., picking apart dirty wool and boiling sheepskins with all kinds of contaminants in it, with bare hands. They earn about 100 Afghani (or $2) per day.

The women who work there vary in age, but some are just girls not more than ten years old. They sit on the wet ground without gloves or masks, making them susceptible to various illnesses, like anthrax poisoning and types of cancers. Anthrax spores can be carried in sheep’s hide.

Soheila, who is about 40, has been working at the company for five years since her husband became disabled when he fell from a wall at the construction site where he was working. She works hard to help support her husband and four children. When I asked if the work causes health problems, she said,  “Ever since I started working in the tanning workshop five years ago, I have had breathing problems, especially at night, and my chest hurts.”

Another woman, 17-year-old Shogofa, said she left school after fourth grade because her family needed her to help earn a living, and she has been working at the factory for three years. The money she makes helps support her siblings and parents.

The most painful thing is to see women who bring their babies with them to work, and the little ones must breathe the pollutants from the boiling mixture they use to clear the sheepskin.

I wish the government of Afghanistan would help improve work conditions for women. There are many ways the government could help. They could build factories and encourage female employment; they could offer more support to farmers to help mechanize their farming; or they could support people who make handicrafts. These steps could help the overall economy and especially offer better jobs for women.

By Zahra M.

Photograph taken by the author.