By Zabihullah Noori
LONDON, March 22 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Three years ago a schoolgirl in rural Afghanistan took out a small loan and bought two beehives. In her first year she harvested 16 kg (35 lb) of honey, enough to repay the loan and leave her with a small profit.
In 2016 Frozan, who is now in her final year at school, earned 120,000 afghanis ($1,728) from the 120 kg that her burgeoning collection of 20 beehives produced - a sizeable sum given that the country's GDP per person is around $600 a year.
"It is unique for a girl in a rural area like mine to have a private business and make a considerable income, but I trusted myself, took the chance, worked hard and made a success of it," the 19-year-old said by phone from the city of Mazar-i-Sharif.
Frozan, who goes by one name, is the first schoolgirl in northern Balkh province's Marmul district to keep bees.
A beekeeping novice three years ago, Frozan was taught by the charity that provided the loan how to look after the bees, how to extract honey, and how to improve its quality and volume.
"It is not time-consuming. I do my daily chores at home, I go to school and I can look after the beehives," she said.
Her story is unusual in other ways too. Women and girls in Afghanistan are discriminated against on a regular basis, says UN Women, and that includes facing severe restrictions on working and studying outside their home.
Citing government figures, Human Rights Watch said last year that 85 percent of the 3.5 million Afghan children not in school are girls. And while two-thirds of adolescent boys are literate, the figure for girls is little more than half that.
That is not the situation for Frozan. The beekeeping profits pay for her and two younger sisters to attend school, and also help her father meet the costs of running a home.
"I am very happy to be self-reliant. I am also glad to have an income and be able to help my father and my sisters," she said.
The World Bank's latest figures show 39 percent of Afghanistan's population lives below the poverty line. And, it said last year, unemployment had worsened - particularly in rural areas.
Although the position of women has improved significantly since the collapse of the Taliban regime in 2001, said UN Women, traditional practices and insecurity continue to hold them back.
That is one reason why Hand in Hand International - the UK-based charity that loaned Frozan the money to start her business - focuses on women.
"They are a vulnerable group and did not have much in the way of employment opportunities in the past," said Rafi Azimi, who works for the charity's regional office in Mazar-i-Sharif.
Empowering women economically, he said, provided them with more status in society.
The charity's goal is to tackle poverty by encouraging local entrepreneurship. Part of that involves helping entrepreneurs connect to bigger markets.
Like any beneficiary, Frozan first went through months of training including on microfinance, bookkeeping and business development.
"She was taught the basics of a business - know the market, how to conduct market surveys and how to link the product to the right market," Azimi said.
Frozan is one of more than 38,000 Afghans who have been helped since the charity opened its office in the country in 2007. To reach women, staff run its programmes through mosques and schools - places where women feel secure.
Once they know which businesses the women are interested in, they work with them on specific training, said Azimi. For instance, it has helped more than 1,100 people set up as beekeepers in Afghanistan, Azimi said. Around half are women.
Every fortnight, Frozan's father takes several kilograms of honey to Mazar-i-Sharif to sell to customers at 1,000 afghanis per kg. Among them is the manager of the Kabul Star supermarket.
"I buy her honey because the quality is good, the packaging is nice and the customers like it," Jawad, who goes by one name, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
Currently that money helps to pay for Frozan's schooling, but after she finishes high school next year she plans to move to Mazar-i-Sharif city.
There she will study economics or enter the teacher training program - funded by the beekeeping.
And what of the bees?
"My father and my two younger sisters will look after the beehives after I leave. I taught them how to take care of the beehives and keep the business going," she said.
Frozan says her success has inspired her classmates.
"Most of my friends in school show a lot of interest in starting up their own businesses. They are looking for similar projects to start their businesses and become economically independent like me," she said.
"I have progressed a lot and my business has expanded vastly. I want all the girls and women to trust themselves and make a move. I am sure they will be successful in whatever they choose to do."
(Reporting by Zabihullah Noori; Editing by Robert Carmichael. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories.)
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