Gender, youth and urban labour market participation: evidence from the tailoring sector in Kabul, Afghanistan

Gender, youth and urban labour market participation: evidence from the tailoring sector in Kabul, Afghanistan

The creation of good jobs and decent work in conflict-affected places is widely seen to generate not just better-off households, but also safer societies and more legitimate states. However, so much of the good jobs agenda is dominated by technical approaches more concerned with balancing out supply and demand than with serious analysis of the role of institutions, identity and power in mediating access to opportunities.

This study is about understanding how labour markets actually work in insecure and dynamic contexts, with a particular focus on:

  • how young women and men acquire skills and enter the urban labour market in the first place, particularly in light of the highly gendered nature of boundaries between public and private space
  • what the nature, terms and limits of their labour market participation look like; and
  • whether participation in that urban labour market is working for or against them (in terms of its effects on various dimensions of their wellbeing).

More specifically, it looks at young women’s and men’s experiences in Kabul’s tailoring labour market.

labour market participation are socially regulated and deeply gendered. Networks matter, and labour market outcomes have a strong relational dimension to them. For example, gaining the support of key male figures (fathers, uncles, husbands) appears important for young women wanting to enter the sector, and, for young men, access to tailoring ‘apprenticeships’ (informal, but widespread) is largely dependent on social connections and the relationship between teachers and students’ parents.

Second, the multiple ways in which women’s access to the market is regulated can be understood as a kind of informal tax on women’s livelihoods. The combination of years of unpaid labour, a more limited and lower quality skill-set relative to male tailors, and restricted access to various parts of the physical marketplace works to reduce economic returns for most women (although examples of real success are also apparent, but in far smaller numbers).

And third, participation in the tailoring labour market has quite different meanings for young women compared to young men: while for the latter, the acquisition of tailoring skills is often seen as forming an economic safety net when times get tough – a long-term Plan B, as it were – for women, participation is much more about the hard-won outcome of a struggle against institutional bounds on economic activity. In some ways, the very act of being able to operate visibly in the urban labourmarket constitutes if not a major achievement, then at least a symbol of resistance against the (highly patriarchal) social rules of the game. However, the generally poor terms of women’s participation in the urban labour market serve to remind us that there is still a long way to go before we might consider calling this a good news story.

These findings suggest that the labour market ultimately functions as a social economy: one’s access and participation are socially regulated not only by one’s networks, but also by institutionalised ideas about what is seen to constitute acceptable behaviour for different social groups. As such, donor programming seeking to create better work for young people in Afghanistan must start with the idea that labour markets both reflect and reinforce existing social inequality, and engage with the evidence showing how the constraints facing women and men in finding and staying in work are of a completely separate nature. In this context, the notion of ‘decent work’ cannot just be about increasing the supply of less insecure jobs, but rather demands practical engagement with the deeply gendered way in which things work – not only in the space of the economic marketplace, but also within the reproductive economic space of the household.

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