Peshawar: Durkhanai, an Afghan refugee, and Hira Shaheen, a Pakistani, are two women sharing a story of courage and resilience.
The sole breadwinners in their families, the two live in a conservative neighbourhood in the south-western city of Quetta. Both not only earn income for themselves through their expertise in local handicrafts but also assist dozens of other underprivileged women in making use of their traditional skills for a living, thanks to UN refugee agency-run project.
Three years ago, when Durkhanai, mother of 10, first enrolled herself in skills training with a UNHCR partner organization she faced resistance from her community elders. “I had to feed my children. My husband never recovered from the injuries he sustained in shelling during the Soviet occupation,” she said with a firm voice. The project is called the Quetta Urban Development Programme QUDP under UNHCR’s Refugee Affected Hosting Area RAHA initiative designed to improve the lives of people living in locations that have been impacted by the long presence of Afghan refugees in Pakistan.
Forty-five year old Durkhanai, after completing her training, is now successfully applying her skills to make around 15,00020,000 Pakistan rupees 157210 USD a month. “I stood and told them community elders if you promise to provide food and education to my children and medicines for my husband, I’m ready to stay home,” she added.
Since its launch, some 280 refugee and Pakistani women have been trained in the production of traditional embroidered dresses, carpet bags, beadwork, embroidered leather bags and wallets, key chains and items for home décor. The centre provides a chance to Afghan refugees and local Baloch women to exchange cultural knowledge and skills. Here, women are trained, provided with raw materials and given access to the market to sell their products at profitable rates.
The project, run through a local nongovernmental organization, Innovative Development Organization IDO, also works to improve the quality of social services and infrastructure such as sanitation schemes, building pavements and solid waste collection points.
Initiated in 2009, the RAHA programme is a major element of the new regional strategy on Afghan refugees agreed between the Islamic Republics of Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan along with UNHCR. Across Pakistan, the RAHA programme is benefiting more than 2.5 million Afghan refugees and Pakistanis.
Jose Belleza, Senior National RAHA Coordinator said, “UNHCR stands ready to support integrated development projects aimed at promoting social cohesion between the Pakistani and refugee communities. ” He also noted, “The RAHA programme is implemented in recognition of the long tradition of hospitality in Pakistan towards Afghan refugees by boosting essential services in areas where refugees used to live or currently living, helping Pakistanis and Afghan refugees alike.”
Durkhanai met Hira; a young Pakistani woman at the skills training centre. Hira is an expert in local Balochi ethnic embroidery and her designs have attracted clients from as far as Thailand. She owes her success to the master trainers and facilitators at the centre, who, according to her, gave her “a new beginning”.
“With my limited schooling, I would never have been able to get a decent job,” she said and continued, “I never thought making embroidered dresses would enable me help my family.”
All the trained artisans are linked to the markets and organizations promoting the local handcraft business. This way they receive orders directly from the companies. Others, not yet comfortable dealing directly with markets, work through the IDO. Another similar UNHCR-funded intervention with a local partner organization is the Balochistan Foundation for Development BFD, where some 195 women completed their skill development training. The training covers a range of skills from embroidery, sewing and cutting, and handicrafts, to traditional birth attendant.
The skills and efforts are paying off; and today Durkhanai’s children study in better schools. Her savings allowed her to buy a milking cow, which enables her to supplement her income by selling milk and butter.
Hira, meanwhile, has been learning traditional Afghan beadwork from Durkhanai and Durkhanai is equally fervent to learn the elegant Balochi embroidery. She explained how her training is beginning to benefit others, “I received orders from famous Pakistan fashion designer in Karachi and now I’m also training girls from underprivileged families like mine to enable them support their families.”
Since 2009 until December 2012, around 1,080 projects have been completed in 41 districts, mostly in the provinces of Balochistan and Khyber Pukhtunkhwa, benefiting over 1.5 million people. These projects were jointly implemented by eight Participating UN Agencies and Deutsche Gesellschaft fur International Zusammenarbeit GIZ.
RAHA has been extended to Sindh, Punjab and FATA in 2012 and 496 projects have been implemented in the sectors of health, education, water and sanitation, infrastructure development, livelihoods, social services and environment.