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December 2008 Edition

SEWA brings hope in Kabul


Aunohita Mojumdar

JAMILLA is 38 years old and has 12 children. Eighteen years ago, her husband, a daily labourer, fell down while scaffolding a building. He was seriously injured so he couldn't support the family anymore. Jamilla spent all these dark years moving with her family from Kabul to Kunduz to Mazar-e- Sharif, seeking refuge, not just from conflict, but from poverty.

Jamilla earned some money selling boloni, the Afghan version of the stuffed parantha, to women who came to Kabul's only women's park, the Bagh-e- Zanana. It was here that she first heard of SEWA, (Self Employed Women's Association), India's largest union of women who run small businesses in the informal sector.

In the park, SEWA was training 1,000 destitute Afghan women to run businesses that were economically viable and culturally appropriate. Jamilla enrolled for the ecological regeneration course. "It's an opportunity to be independent and support my family better," she says.

The SEWA project, which will run for one year initially, has been financed by the Indian government at a cost of $1.4 million. It is part of India's assistance programme for Afghanistan.

"The idea for the project germinated in India's desire to see the international community's talk about gender empowerment and mainstreaming translate into building the talents and skills of women," says India's ambassador to Afghanistan, Jayant Prasad. Announced during the 2005 visit of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh by his wife, Gurcharan Kaur, the project will train Afghan women in ecological regeneration, food processing and garment manufacture.

These vocations were selected after careful consideration. Afghanistan remains a deeply conservative society where the participation of women inthe workforce and in public spaces is severely restricted. Infrastructure is absent. So is a robust market that could generate employment for women.

The trainees were chosen by Afghanistan's Ministry of Women's Affairs from names forwarded by local communities. The neediest women, including war widows and orphans have been chosen.

The stipend for the trainees was kept a secret to ensure that only those who really wanted to learn would come. SEWA trainers interviewed each aspiring trainee before making a final decision.

"Unlike many projects where the daily allowance is the attraction, these destitute women walk miles or spend their own money to reach the training site," said Megha Desai, SEWA's project coordinator.

SEWA first trained a group of 32 'master trainers' in India. By training local Afghan women as trainers, the Indian government hopes to replicate the project in future in different provinces. "We are reaching out to other NGOs for the first time so that they can take up the project," said Jayant Prasad.

"The significance of the SEWA project is that the women can work in their own homes," said Dr Hussn Banu Ghazanfar, Minister of Women's Affairs, the only woman in the Cabinet. "Plants, design work, food processing are skills that the women can use to set up businesses which do not require much money. They can do it on their own. We can help them also."

One beneficiary is Anees Gul. Her husband suffered a bullet injury while working as a policeman during Najibullah's time. He is incapacitated. Anees's Afghan trainer is Wasima Meri, a master trainer. Wasima is better off than the women she teaches. A school teacher, she felt she could do better as a professional cook.

"When we keep fruits and vegetables at home, they go bad very soon. With the skills I learnt here I will be able to preserve things longer and make jams and juices which can be sold. Twice since the training, I made carrot juice the way I had learnt. My family could not believe it could taste so good," she says in a voice bursting with pride.

To understand local realities, SEWA, on the suggestion of the Indian embassy, carried out an intensive assessment of costing, finance and accounting for small businesses, cultural mores and educational standards. This contrasts with several well-intentioned programmes created on drawing boards in Western capitals which fail because ground realities don’t match.

The skills SEWA selected are indigenous to Afghans but need upgrading, says Desai. Gardening is something most Afghans do if they have land and water. Drying and preserving foods is also a regularhousehold chore. The challenge was to upgrade skills so that the women could sell their products. SEWA intends to preserve traditional skills that could be lost.

"The idea is for women to learn skills and help other women. They will produce, not for the elite market, but for themselves and surpluses for their family and contiguous community. This will address the challenge of inter linkages to the market," says Jayant Prasad.

SEWA has talked to the Kabul Municipality and the Ministry of Agriculture to see if women training in ecological restoration can be employed in government owned nurseries, said Desai. The women will, in fact, be training on Bagh-e- Zanana's barren, dusty land.

For food processing, the challenge will be to reach the market. Most women who enrolled for the course were selling food at the park, which is a secure place but has limited opportunities for boosting incomes. "Now I hope I can set up a shop outside the park with my son," says Shad Jan, a mother of five children. "I can cook, he can sell and my daughters can help me."

Garment manufacture is of poor quality in Afghanistan. So a wholesale market in second hand clothes from Pakistan thrives. There is high use of synthetic clothes. To reverse this trend, Desai hopes to teach the women how to manufacture high quality clothes at low cost and thereby create a thriving, inexpensive clothes market for women.

SEWA has imported 36 electronically operated sewing machines. After training, SEWA hopes to set up a community centre where the women can run their own garment units.

But it is tough. The garment trainees returned from India two months ago. But they could not continue their training because there was no electricity to power the machines. Kabul gets a few hours of electricity every day in summer. In winter, supply reduces to just two hours for four days. The women will have to rely on diesel fuelled generators if they want to use the better quality imported machines.

Working in Afghanistan has been a challenge for SEWA which is undertaking a project for the first time outside India. When Desai and her colleague went to the wholesale market to see what materials were available, they were the only women in a male market.

For Desai the reward is in seeing her work make a big difference to the women who share their stories with her every day. "Afghan women are smart and intelligent," she says. The dedication and courage of this SEWA team shows. Desai returned to Afghanistan a few days after the bomb blast which hit the Indian embassy. She shrugs and says, "We have always worked with the grassroots."



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