by Mary Dobbing
One morning we headed out to listen in on a joint meeting between the seamstresses at Afghan Action and Pandora’s Hope, the APV based seamstresses. The morning was bright and cold with freshly fallen snow covering the roads and buildings. A deep blue sky spread above the snow covered mountains and the morning mist was dissolving in strong sunshine. From the car we could see men shovelling snow – with attention to the getting it off the roofs. Small avalanches of fluffy new snow fell onto the sidewalks from the flat roofs.
Afghan Action’s seamstresses are forming themselves into a cooperative and are starting to get contracts to make uniforms. The meeting was to explore whether they and Pandora’s Hope could collaborate in any way.
Two stoves were burning away with big brass tea kettles warming on top when we arrived with the Pandora’s Hope seamstresses. Afghan Action’s workshop has about thirty sewing machines and big windows looking out over a sunny courtyard with a garden and trees. There were two large cutting tables at the front and a pressing table with a sleeve press. It was a bright room with giant low energy light bulbs providing a good working light. The wood laminate floor was warm and clean, and steel girders held up the wooden roof.
Afghan Action is funded from donations from Britain, and some earnings from carpet weaving. Their seamstresses are salaried while they train for one year. Pandora’s Hope women train for a few weeks and do not receive any money. Their work space is used both as a classroom and sleeping room at other times of the day, so all the sewing machines have to be put away. There was a sense that Afghan Action’s women were better trained and they certainly had better equipment and conditions. All the women had a sewing machine permanently installed with separate tables in a dedicated work space. Afghan Action’s seamstresses have had help forming a business making garments which it is hoped will become self-sustaining. Pandora’s Hope would like to do this for their seamstresses.
The meeting was being held between the seamstresses from both ‘firms’. After Salaam’s all round, the men from each firm introduced the issues which were not translated. There were about thirty young women aged 16-17 years and four or five older women in the meeting. There were some questions and answers between the two groups including some long statements by the women. And occasionally everyone giggled covering their mouths with an end of a scarf, and then looked more serious again.
Pinned to the walls were samples of work and paper patterns. There were samples of women’s tops with gathered pleats and embroidered chest panels in several colours. There was a white lab coat and some black blouses. These samples were arranged to attract customers for contracts for uniforms.
There are specific challenges for Afghan women going into business. The women are unwilling to work from shop front premises in the bazaar. Being open to the public in a shop, and selling and displaying goods are social no-no’s for Afghan women. The culture dictates that women are confined to the domestic and family spheres. Families prefer women to work at home and all of the above are hard to do in a conservative society. Therefore their problem is how to market their products, take orders and deliver orders to customers.
Outside men were still shovelling vast amounts of snow off the flat roofs. It’s landing with resonant thumps on the walkways outside punctuating the discussion. We left the women to talk while we met with Samim (Manager of Afghan Action) in his office.
He explained that Afghan Actions’ seamstresses have had one year of training. The primary challenge is how to employ the women and promote independent and sustainable businesses after their training finishes. The first cohort of trainees has just finished and ten or fifteen of the women want to create a business together. They will need to be licensed to get investment from the Afghan Support Investment Agency (ASIA). They hope to get small contracts for uniforms for schools, hospitals, restaurants and hotels etc. As they graduate from their training Afghan Action wants to help the team to start a business. The greatest fear is that after training for a year the women will disperse back to their homes, with no work and no longer getting the training salary. Their training and the business opportunities may evaporate as though nothing had ever happened.
The global economic downturn has affected Afghanistan and the surrounding countries too, and now the orders have stopped. The options remaining for the newly trained seamstresses are:
- Local marketing – design the garments themselves and get orders from friends and relatives.
- Contract market – schools, hospitals, restaurants etc
- Make up their own designs and bring them to the market and sell to the public – traditional Afghan clothes.
While the women had their discussion we heard about another of Afghan Aid’s projects. Afghan Aid also supports carpet weaving and training. The trainees get schooling in Information Computer Technology (ICT), business skills, accounting, literacy, and a bit of English. There is a health care nurse on site to help with minor ailments.
The carpet weaving project is in its seventh year. The sewing project is in its first year. Afghan Action has registered with the Ministries of Business, Economy, Women, and Education. The trainees get a certificate at the end of their training.
The economics of both carpet weaving and sewing garments is stacked against the new Afghan Action trainees. Apprentice made goods are relatively expensive compared to factory production or imports from China and Pakistan. The income from sales of trainees’ pieces is needed to fund more trainees sustainably. Selling the pieces locally means paying a margin to a middle person which also ramps up the item costs.
The carpet weaving graduates are finding employment in the Kabul carpet factories which is a significant achievement. But the trainees’ apprentice carpets which are sold to raise funds for further trainee places, are valued at $200 per square metre which is more than the carpets from the factories cost. Then there are problems with the expense of difficult and dangerous overland transport. Exporting the carpets costs $15 per kilo in transport alone, which adds yet more to the costs of marketing the carpets outside the country.
For British outlets selling Afghan Aid’s carpets look at www.afghanaction.org
We were called back in to the meeting in the sewing workshop to hear the upshot of the women’s discussion. There had been a searching conversation. Some of the differences emerging between the two groups were:
Working hours. There was a difference in availability between Afghan Action and Pandora’s Hope women about working hours. Afghan Action will come to work whether or not there is work to do. Pandora’s Hope would find that hard to do. Working 08:00-16:00 would not be acceptable to the families of the Pandora’s Hope women.
Separation from men. Pandora’s Hope need a work room where they can be separate from men. Afghan Action’s workshop arrangements cannot guarantee this.
Wages. In a single day they need to earn 500 Afghanis (or $10) per worker in order to help their families.
International Support. They request an international supporter to provide a foreign market for goods. They think they can get a better market for their goods abroad. The middle men in local Afghan markets take a cut and this reduces earnings.
At the end of this day’s discussions, Samim told to us that the seamstresses had agreed to share marketing. But Pandora’s Hope women need to decide whether to work at home or in workshops. They are clear that at the moment their families would not let them go out to work all day. They are needed at home for childcare and domestic duties. The Afghan Aid seamstresses are able to go to the workshop in the day. The outcome of discussions on this day was that Pandora’s Hope and Afghan Action would stay separate for the time being aside from marketing.
Later, back at the Afghan Peace Volunteer’s community house we debriefed about the visit. It was explained to us that it is now the norm in Kabul for trainees get paid to do training. International non-governmental organisations have introduced payment for training and created an expectation that payment will be made. Now people no longer value skills acquisition without the inducement of payment. As well as this, Afghan Aid has the added problem with dependency and how to get the trainees to move on to gainful employment when the training (and the training allowance) comes to an end. Unemployment is estimated to be 36% but there are no reliable statistics and no social security. This is just the male population, there are no figures for women’s unemployment.
The women want to help with the family budget but they are hardly ever allowed to work. One woman from Pandora’s Hope said that coming to the sewing training was the first time she had ever been able to leave the home. The women said that there was a suspicion in their families that they will be seen by men, and that they were earning money, which can cause tensions at home. Contact with other women is important, however, for their personal and professional development. At the APV community the training space is ‘safe’ for the 5 months of the women’s training and it guarantees to the families that they will not be seen by men there.
The women come to sewing training for one hour at the APV community home. They told us that if they were ever late home after training they stood the risk of being punished. Both of the women’s training groups are of mixed ethnicity. The women can get argumentative among themselves when resolving conflicts and this can divide along ethnic divisions and suspicions. For the women who have only just come out of the house, the prospect of starting a business is unthinkable, a huge leap in aspiration. The children of the women at the sewing training come to the community’s classes and learn in mixed (ethnicity and sex) classes which helps to broaden their horizons.
The achievement of the women and the support of the Afghan Peace Volunteers and Afghan Aid cannot be underestimated. For women to get together and to be able to thrash out their business models and plans without men or managers is unusual. The aim is to let them work it all out with minimal interference unless specific expertise is demanded. The objective is an economically sustainable project which benefits the women not only through learning skills in sewing garments for sale, but also increasing women’s confidence by letting them work out how to run their business themselves.