MEDA is helping to give birth to a small economic revolution in a corner of South Asia’s “embroidery belt” through a three-year $1.2 million project in mountainous northern Balochistan, one of the most remote and impoverished areas of Pakistan.
Due to local cultural norms, women are sequestered and isolated, so engaging them in any enterprise is difficult. “Women’s economic empowerment in Balochistan is an enormous task that requires a concerted and deliberate effort,” notes Helen Loftin, MEDA’s director of women’s economic development. Challenges include deeply-rooted cultural norms against women’s inclusion in any activity outside the home, as well as the overall insecurity of the region.
But working through its partners, WESS (Water, Environment and Sanitation Society) and ECI (Empowerment thru Creative Integration), MEDA is finding innovative ways to reach 5,000 women embellishers, share precious market knowledge and business skills, and connect them to viable markets. In turn, the women are earning increased incomes and economic power that will help them assume a more active role in household and community decision making – no minor feat in a tribal and deeply patriarchal society.
They celebrated their achievements to date with a two-day conference and exhibition Nov 29-30 organized by WESS with SEED (Serena Educational and Environmental Development Program) at the Serena Hotel in Quetta. The event attracted 292 participants and 22 exhibitors – from women embellishers and female sales agents to input suppliers, wholesalers, retailers and supporting organizations – for networking, information sharing and exposure to broader markets. Sales agents had the opportunity to expand their network, share their work and get feedback from designers.
The event vividly illustrated the value chain for embellished fabrics by displaying under one roof the various businesses, activities and relationships involved in creating a final product or service. It also promoted interaction between the various participant groups.
Seeing the event as a successful starting point for the economic empowerment of women in Balochistan, Serena Hotel management was moved to sponsor a follow-up event Dec. 30.
The project, sponsored by FAO Pakistan (United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization) with support from USAID, has attracted 2,617 women embellishers and 183 female sales agents in its first year.
- Pakistan’s largest province – but mountainous and remote, with very low population density
- High rates of poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, and infant and maternal mortality
- Literacy rates lowest in the country – 18% among men; only 7% among women
- Only 25% of the population has access to electricity – vs. national average of 75%
Meher Afroze Baloch
says she was “a simple housewife” using out-dated embroidery designs for household use before she got involved with the project. Since she became a sales agent, she has been exposed to markets in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad. “Karachi was a wonderful learning experience. I had the opportunity to see new designs and products as well as receive training in color combination as well as product diversification.” She feels that the quality of her work has substantially improved after her exposure to different areas of the country. “Now, I’m a more confident person and can deal directly with the market. I can work better with local women embellishers and guide them in their product design and quality with respect to market demands.”
a fabric embellisher, has been doing embroidery for 10 years. In three months with the project, she has had multiple opportunities for training. “The most attractive feature of the project is that I can work out of my house and still earn a stable income. A project like this is very beneficial for women like me who were unable to go to the market, so couldn’t sell our products at market-based, competitive prices.” Shakila says that, in addition to better embroidery skills, the project has given her better business sense and enterprise skills. “I’m excited to be part of this project, and look forward to yet more improvement in my skills, productivity and income in the year to come.”
a teacher and sales agent from Zhob, says, “As we all know, in Balochistan it is very difficult for a girl to come out of her home to earn an income. I was one of the few women from Zhob who has saved PKR100,000 (about $1,200) and set up a vocational training center. We manufacture a range of products, and recently received an order from Karachi!”
“Just inviting a woman to the dais to speak at an event like this shows how much progress has been made in Balochistan.”- Dr. Fauzia Nazir Marri, Government of Pakistan
“In its own way, the organization is giving birth to a revolution.” – Syed Abid Rizvi, Chairperson, WESS
Pakistan’s Embroidery Belt
Any happy occasion in Pakistan, along with food, music and fun, also calls for a special dress – more often than not, women turn to hand-embellished fabric. The quality can vary, with the price ranging from very expensive to reasonable. Embellishments are applied on varied and special motifs and designs, some of which date back to the Mughal era (1526-1857) and beyond.
Take for instance, the timeless paisley and geometrical designs very conspicuous in Islamic art and popularly used in the phulkari (flower patterns) embroidery. The materials used include cotton and silk threads, glass mirror pieces, beads, shells, buttons and designed metal pieces.
Geography and culture exercise a significant influence on the type of embroidery and color used. This is especially true of the "embroidery belt" which stretches from the NWFP to the Thar dessert and across Gujrat to Rajasthan in India. This particular area in the Subcontinent boasts the largest variety of embellishment styles and the people are highly skilled in their craft.
South Asia has long been famous for its beautifully embellished cloth, with the exquisite work often produced by women as and when they find time around household chores. Girls learn this skill from their mothers or other women of their family and prepare embroidery pieces for their dowry. In the rural areas it is common to use embroidered textiles to beautify living spaces. Very fine embroideries are handed down from generation to generation and are framed and kept protected in urban homes as well.