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Sediqua Mousawey takes shelter from the hot afternoon sun and measures carefully the width of a cabinet. Like any good carpenter, she measures twice and cuts once.

Like her fellow students, all widows like herself, she has studied many times over the western numbers on the tape measure and what they mean.

With a long red scarf covering her head and wearing the traditional shalwar kameez, Ms. Mousawey makes an unlikely carpenter. But as the mother of three fatherless children, there are few options for her in Afghanistan.

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In a country where many women still cover their faces with burkas and few work outside the home, she relies on a CARE International food distribution program funded by the Canadian International Development Agency to feed her children.

Now, through a related CIDA program, she is learning this most unlikely of trades.

"It's a good career," Ms. Mousawey, 31, says through a translator.

Her husband was a shopkeeper killed by the Taliban. Life has not been easy following his death but Ms. Mousawey has a quiet confidence that will not be deterred.

"It depends on the person," she says of life on her own in this land of widows. "The person who has patience and makes strong decisions, they can do anything."

Fatima Akbary, 42, agrees. Also a widow, Ms. Akbary learned carpentry in Iran more than a decade ago.

"It's not, traditionally, a woman's career," she admits. But "I decided to support my family."

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At her school she has a total of 60 students and she hopes to employ many of them making furniture for sale locally.

"This is hard work," Ms. Akbary says, also through a translator. "But they have promised me we will continue and we will support our families through this career."

Sylvie Dupuis arrived in Afghanistan from Montreal a few weeks ago to head up a new CARE program that will take on 1,800 Afghan widows for vocational training. It will cost $4.5-million over three years, funded by CIDA.

With jobs hard to come by in this war-torn country, everything and anything is game. There will be schools for traditional vocations such as tailoring, wool-spinning, farming and health care. There will also be training for jobs not traditionally open to women in Afghanistan - like truck driving, carpentry, photography and information technology.

"It's limited," Ms. Dupuis says of the options for Afghan women.

In addition to vocational training, the women will get training in marketing, negotiation and sales. The idea is for them to be able to open their own micro-businesses for the local and, eventually, maybe even the export market.

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Part of the program will be an educational campaign for the families and local communities to overcome the social stigma attached to women in the work force.

"It's a challenge but it's a challenge we have to take on," says Fazila Banu Lily, manager of the food distribution program and the existing training by the Humanitarian Assistance for the Widows of Afghanistan, operated by CARE with funding from CIDA.

"In any society like Afghanistan, where women have not traditionally worked outside the home, it's a big challenge. Many women are not ready to take this step but some are."

Since 1996, an average of 10,000 women a month have received food through the food distribution program. This year, that has been reduced to roughly 3,000 women.

The HAWA program also runs literacy campaigns for Afghan women.

The need is huge, says Banu Lily, who hails from Ottawa. "War has been going on for the past 22 years here ... It is a very desperate situation for many widows."

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Since November 2005, more than a thousand Afghan widows have received training through the HAWA program.

"A few of them are doing quite well, earning $60 to $80 a month, which we consider good money," Ms. Banu Lily says.

Of the carpenters in this class, "less than 50 per cent will get carpentry work," she admits. "It's very hard to get a job at a man's carpentry workshop."

But she says she's seen changes in the individual lives of participants, even if the progress is sometimes slow.

The abundant criticism of development programs in Afghanistan can't be of concern to those who dedicate their lives to it, she adds.

"If we considered it, we wouldn't be able to move on."

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Ms. Dupuis says the possibility of changing the lives of some of the most marginalized people convinced her to come to Afghanistan despite the dangers.

"For sure we have to be careful. By the same token, if we think we can make a difference here, that takes priority."



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