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Covered, yet empowered: By the women, for the women

GILGIT: Inflation, poverty, an 18-year-old paralysed son, three school-going daughters, a jobless husband: Khadija Bibi, a housewife in Gilgit, saw no apparent light at the end of the tunnel. With many government projects stalled due to lack of funds, her husband, a contractor, was not expected to start earning anytime soon.

Desperate times require desperate measures. Khadija, a woman from the very traditional province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) was ready to plunge into the work field to provide for her family, but did not know how.

“Then one day, I came to know that the Gilgit-Baltistan (G-B) government and an NGO had some plans to assist women to increase their income,” said Khadija. “The good thing was that they were providing technical and financial support for setting up small businesses.”

Since a year, things are looking up for this 48-year-old woman who goes to the market every morning and returns home before evening, bringing enough money home to feed her family. “It’s quite encouraging,” she said with a hopeful smile.

In 2007, G-B’s Planning Department and Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP) worked out a plan to establish a string of ‘women markets’ in G-B. The idea of a market exclusive for women drew its strength from the cultural, religious and ethnic sensitivities of various communities living in G-B.

These markets have women as both shopkeepers and shoppers. Women feel comfortable on both sides of the shop counter, dealing with the other women rather than men.

The plan worked as more and more women came up with ideas to start a business. “Around 2,000 women expressed their desire to start independent work as we sought opinion from nearly 60,000 women across G-B,” said Muzaffaruddin, a senior official in the AKRSP, an NGO working in G-B since early 80s in rural development. “We then conducted separate sessions with them, providing them necessary training on how to run a small business,” he said.

As part of their commitment, the support provided to the women by the NGO includes installation of racks in the shops and payment of half of the rent of their shops for the first six months. In addition to that, the women were also taken to cities connecting them with the market forces. They were also linked with a micro-finance bank for loans.

With over 600 shops in 30 women markets across G-B, more than 600 women are now running their independent businesses and supporting their families. The markets operational are in areas, including Danyor, Nomal, Khomer, Ghizer, Astore and Skardu.

A recent study reveals that while certain shops have closed down, the business with women at the helm has expanded on the whole. Encouragingly, the programme is also being replicated in the neighbouring Chitral valley of KP, indicating its success.

For Khadija, life has changed considerably. She spends more time away from home than she ever has. But at the end of the day, when she shares a meal with her family that doesn’t leave them hungry and she knows she can pay her children’s school fee, she goes to sleep a tired but happy woman.

Source: The Express Tribune

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