Imagine a life without technology and education, where only 6.8 of every 100 people in your country have access to the Internet, and the national literacy rate for women stands at a concerning 12%. Pair this with an already culturally conservative society that discourages women from even leaving the house, and you have the average experience of an Afghan woman—voiceless and stigmatized, denied the right to autonomy and the means to achieve it.
Roya Mahboob was one of these women. Discreetly teaching herself about computers through textbooks, UN-sponsored technology courses, and limited Internet access, Mahboob eventually managed to become one of Afghanistan’s first female CEOs. She created her own software development company, Afghan Citadel, and hired female workers to empower her fellow women. Her quest to make more Afghan women digitally literate and financially independent caught the international attention of Americans such as former secretary of state John Kerry and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, and she was honored as one of TIME’s Most Influential People in 2013. Unfortunately, her endeavors also caught the attention of the Taliban and local conservatives, and she was soon forced out of her own country.
Now in the U.S., Mahboob leads her Manhattan-headquartered nonprofit organization Digital Citizen Fund (DCF), which continues to build the IT centers and classes for young women that she began in Afghanistan. Within these programs, female students in Herat and Kabul take courses on coding, social media, computer hardware, and financial literacy, and the environment of encouragement and empowerment motivates them to take the initiative and start their own businesses. With 13 centers built, 10,000 young women educated in DCF programs, and future expansion to Mexico and Brazil in the works, Roya Mahboob and Digital Citizen Fund continue to change the social and economic roles of women in developing countries around the world.
For Mahboob, the next step in this progress is fully taking advantage of blockchain technology. While running her second venture, Women’s Annex, in which Afghan women wrote blogs and earned money from ad revenue, she paid her female employees in Bitcoin. This helped to avoid the problems of a traditional culture in which males control all finances, including that of their wives, sisters and daughters. With Bitcoin, there was no fear of physical confiscation—one employee with an abusive husband was even able to file for divorce after saving up her bitcoins.
Mahboob hopes to utilize Bitcoin and blockchain technologies in conjunction with the rising entrepreneurs of her Digital Citizen Fund programs, and the women of developing countries in general. Blockchain technologies not only grant women the autonomy of managing their own money but hold records safe from corruption through smart contracts. Mahboob hopes to eventually create a marketplace based on such technology, which will use smart contracts for insurance and loans and use cryptocurrency such as Bitcoin for transactions. By taking advantage of blockchain, women in conservative or developing countries such as Afghanistan can achieve financial independence.
I spent the summer interning for Roya Mahboob and Digital Citizen Fund. Roya was one of the most compassionate, intelligent, and determined women I had ever met, and I deeply enjoyed writing grants and other materials for her and DCF. Once, as we sat in a coffee shop, looking out at the New York City street, she said with a wry smile: “You don’t know how lucky you are, growing up here.”
In a progressive and economically stable nation like the United States, even with our own gender issues to overcome, we often take for granted our relatively equal access to technology and education. For women in Afghanistan, these freedoms are not as easy to attain. Perhaps even more admirable than Roya Mahboob’s tenacity in achieving her own goals is her continuing battle—even an ocean away from her homeland—to give girls like herself the same chance at changing their own lives and the world around them.
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