Zardozi helps Afghan women stitch together their own businesses

The NGO Zardozi helps women in Afghanistan start their own businesses by using a skill that most of them already know: sewing.

Lalage Snow/Oxfam 2012
An NGO called Zardozi is helping Afghan women to start their own businesses, even if they are tiny ones, using a skill most of them already know: sewing.

Kamila Haidary is just 24 years old, but she has already given birth to seven children, only four of whom are alive today.

Money is tight for her family, who live in this poor, dusty neighborhood on the outskirts of Kabul. So she has started a business – just a small one – to help supplement her husband’s income.

That’s a story that you don’t hear very often in Afghanistan. In this country, women, especially women in poverty, usually have no options beyond marriage and motherhood. But a nongovernmental organization called Zardozi is trying to change that, at least for the roughly 1,000 women that the project is able to reach. The idea is to help the women start their own businesses, even if tiny ones, by using a skill that most of them already know: sewing.

“One of my friends heard about Zardozi, and she told me about it. Now I’m earning good money,” says Ms. Haidary as she sits cross-legged on the floor of Zardozi’s regional office, where a small crowd of women are gathered to sew and chat on a recent weekday morning. “I used to just do sewing work on my own, but since I joined Zardozi I have so many orders that I can afford to hire homeworkers to help me.”

Working in Kabul and three other Afghan cities – Mazar, Jalalabad, and Herat – Zardozi offers women training on topics such as design, quality assurance, pricing, leadership skills, and business planning.

The organization – which is funded by the Dutch nonprofit group Oxfam Novib and the governments of Britain and Sweden – then connects the women with shopkeepers who buy their shirts, pants, pillowcases, and the like. Sometimes the organization offers the women small loans, as little as $100, to help them expand their fledgling businesses. In return, the women pay a membership fee of just $1 per month.

It may seem like a fairly straightforward business model, but the women who join the project tend to need a lot of support on even the simplest tasks.

“These women are like prisoners who have just gotten out of jail,” says Kerry Jane Wilson, the director of Zardozi, adding that most of the women are illiterate and have trouble doing very basic things like talking to shopkeepers or finding their way around their own city. “They don’t even know where they live,” she says.

That is why the training is so critical. The Zardozi staff teach the women how to build their businesses and access local markets on their own.

You can already see a difference in the women’s attitudes and abilities, says Storai Ahmadi, a Zardozi employee. The changes are especially evident among those women who have taken on positions within Zardozi’s executive committee, a small leadership group that represents the rest of the members.

“You can see a big change in their attitudes and their behavior – the way they talk, the way they interact with each other,” Ms. Ahmadi says. “You can see a big change in their levels of confidence from before.”

But for most of the women, the chance to earn a little extra income seems to be the main appeal of the project.

Haidary says that she now makes about $30 per month on her sewing work, more than she has ever earned before. That is no small feat in a country where more than one-third of the population lives in absolute poverty, and where unemployment hovers around 35 percent.

Haidary hopes to keep up her work with Zardozi, a goal that she says her husband supports.

“I want to keep attending the trainings to get more skills,” Haidary says, her soft words rising above the jumble of women’s voices behind her. “I hope to hire more workers and make my business bigger.”

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