A living on the LOC
Civil Society News, Kupwara/New Delhi
SHAHNAZA is a busy working woman who at 32 is in the prime of her life. Her day begins with sending her three daughters to school and putting her household chores on course. After that it is off to her job and there is time for little else till she is back home.
It is the kind of hectic routine that a young employed mother might have in any large Indian city. But what is different with Shahnaza is that she lives in Kupwara district on the Line of Control (LOC) with Pakistan in Kashmir. Her job is as a master weaver and the opportunities she has for a fulfilling life in these remote parts are hard-won and unique.
Till 10 years ago, it was not the kind of life she knew. Instead, she would be sequestered in her house, fearful of transgressing her father’s wishes and unaware of the world at large. She hadn’t even been to Srinagar, the capital of Jammu and Kashmir, just a few hours away.
Shahnaza’s father earned Rs 500 or so a day doing odd jobs — and that was in the months when the weather was okay. It was barely enough for the family — there were three daughters and a son— to have one meal.
Life was full of anxieties and fears. Kupwara has suffered from seething extremism and volatility. It can be deceptively sylvan and scenic and has traditionally attracted some degree of tourist attention. But it has been an impoverished district, lacking in infrastructure and employment possibilities. In winter everything shuts down.
The first possibilities of change for Shahnaza and other women like her came in 2009 when SEWA, the iconic federation of women-led organizations in the informal sector, went to Kashmir at the urging of the Union home ministry to develop livelihoods for women in the border districts. Local prosperity, howsoever meagre, engenders peace and stability. It gets people to focus on new horizons.
Women have been trained in weaving, stitching, handicrafts, agriculture and horticulture
Founded on Gandhian values in 1972 by the late Ela Bhatt, SEWA or the Self-employed Women’s Association, has successfully shown that economic empowerment of women not only brings them their rights and improves their status, but also, through more balanced gender equations, results in enduring social change.
Women with incomes have a greater say in households and shape family aspirations. More money also means more options — particularly getting an education and deferring marriage.
SEWA’s experience has been all over India and abroad as well — Afghanistan, for instance. It has created a bank for women who are poor to access funds. It functions as a sisterhood which stands for inclusion, access and agency for all women irrespective of religion or caste. But could SEWA bolster Kashmiri women in border districts with its strategies for empowerment? Could it help them make the transition from their seemingly endless strife and tension to acquiring skills and stable livelihoods and purpose in life?
SKILLS, SUPPLY CHAINS
It has taken all of 13 years of persistence by SEWA to build a sisterhood of Kashmiri women who take money home, see the potential in themselves and are a force for peace. The outcomes have been transformational.
SEWA’s mission in Kashmir hasn’t been easy even with all the experience at its command. And it has been working in just two districts — Kupwara to begin with and then Ganderbal.
Shahnaza, now a master weaver
But 7,195 women have been trained in weaving, stitching, handicrafts, agriculture and horticulture. There are 1,225 who have been groomed into being master trainers — Shahnaza being one of them. Women have been taught how to service and fix solar lights. They have been exposed to computers. They make snacks and also package and sell them.
The women have set up horticulture supply chains with the result that 2,500 tonnes of apples are sold every season. In addition there are cherries, apricots, strawberries and saffron.
These women earn between Rs 10,000 and Rs 30,000 a month, which is a whole big change from their dire dependence on the men in their families. Collectively, they do an average of Rs 2 crore worth of business a year. Their status within families and within the community at large has changed. They have become a part of decision-making.
Incomes have prompted more young women to study further. Apart from skills, they have learnt to run their businesses. They continue to get married off, but increasingly they exercise their own choices.
An important step has been the setting up of the Shehjar District Association in Kupwara to give the women a sense of organization. It was registered in 2016 and is owned and managed by the 3,500 women who are its members. It was initially financially supported by SEWA, but now the association is self-sustaining because the women market their products through it.
With the association has come the Shehjar Community Resource Centre, which now serves as the hub for training and economic activities. Women gravitate to the centre, set up with support from the Union home ministry and the ministry of textiles.
The good work done in Kupwara is an example of how the government and social organizations can collaborate for development. SEWA and the current home ministry have a healthy partnership. Working in conflict zones is complex. It means dealing with deep-seated attitudes and outright hostility. A government can’t hope to succeed alone.
Snacks and food products are a line of business
It took a few years for SEWA to make some headway. It wasn’t allowed to speak directly to the women. Men were the decision-makers. But getting the women to travel out of Kupwara was a game-changer. They had mostly never gone anywhere else before. They were chaperoned by men, but the trip opened their eyes and in their minds at least set them free. They saw Delhi, Ahmedabad, Pune, the sea coast. But above all they saw the successful model of enterprise that SEWA stood for. They came back wanting to be like other women who were working and earning for themselves.
Reema Nanavaty, director of SEWA, recalls the antagonism in the beginning when no one was willing to meet the SEWA team and the involvement of the government at that point, far from being an advantage, was a major hurdle.
Says Nanavaty: “When we first went to Kupwara we stayed with the BSF at a camp and went to the villages with BSF protection. Lo and behold, what hostility we faced! They said, ‘Oh, so you all have come from Hindustan.’ We said, ‘Yes, we are from Hindustan. Where else are you from?’ They were not even willing to see us as fellow sisters or anything of that sort.”
“We were just thrown out from the villages, so much so that some of the men wanted to torch our vehicle. This happened in village after village. That made us realize that going with the BSF or with uniformed men was not going to work, if you wanted to really organize women. We came back again, tried for about a week, but we had to face the same hostility,” she recalls.
“So, 11 of us sat down and discussed our experiences. Even if we tried to meet the women in the villages, they were so suspicious they would come all together. But when we would return the next day, no woman would be allowed to meet us.”
They decided that there was a need to change their strategy. They began going to the villages on their own instead of being accompanied by the BSF men and a BSF vehicle. But they still made no headway.
“We had thought that having worked in Afghanistan, Kashmir, being part of India, wouldn’t be that difficult for us,” says Nanavaty.
“After about six months, we thought, Let’s change the whole approach. Perhaps their hostility would melt away if we were able to take even a few women to SEWA so that they could see that what they think is Hindustan is not that bad. Also, the women of Hindustan are not that bad!”
SEWA told the Union home ministry that they would really need a local base, a place to stay and work in Kupwara, so that they could at least talk to the women without the men getting in the way. The men had been refusing to allow SEWA people to meet the women.
The joint secretary in the home ministry introduced SEWA to a local organization called the HELP Foundation. They gave SEWA two of their local organizers in Kupwara. But once again they were men!
“I asked myself, again two men? How are we going to work? But I think the whole approach was very different. It was the men who would consult with the men in the villages and once the men agreed, then we would be allowed to go and speak to the women. Also, we had to cover our heads. We had to do that. It took almost a year to really establish some kind of trust and faith in us,” says Nanavaty.
The government had a Bharat Darshan programme which SEWA decided to use to take groups of women to the SEWA units in Gujarat and also show them cities in other parts of India. The women would be accompanied by two or three men who would be brothers or fathers and one of the organizers of the HELP Foundation.
The first exposure visit, however, ended in failure because the women were welcomed at SEWA with bindis as is the tradition in Gujarat and the men saw this as an attempt to convert them.
“We brought them to SEWA on an exposure visit and thought this would now work. But after they went back the men said, ‘You are taking them to Gujarat, you are going to convert the women’. In Gujarat we welcome guests with a bindi. That backfired. This was in 2011,” says Nanavaty recalling how carefully they had to proceed.
In solidarity: Women from Kupwara discover an empowering future in Ahmedabad
The next trip was more successful. Better preparation was involved. Women from 12 to 15 villages of Kupwara were taken to Gujarat to show them how SEWA functioned and the impact its programmes had on reducing poverty. It was also decided to go beyond SEWA to show them factories in the rest of India.
“We exposed them to how SEWA organizes women in urban and rural areas, and the poverty there is. They saw that even though the women were poor, they were able to earn a livelihood, a decent livelihood,” explains Nanavaty. “They saw how poor women had their own bank. They saw the literacy programme, the different livelihood programmes, and the outlook of the women began to change.”
Bharat Darshan allows for two or three different locations. The Amul Dairy plant was shown to them as was the Bajaj Auto factory in Pune.
Recalls Nanavaty: “They wanted to see the beach. It was the first time ever they had left their villages and sat in a train. And you know, when they went to the beach, they felt liberated. I mean, they wanted to take pictures and they wanted to dress differently. Each one had one or two cell phones. They would take pictures but not let their fathers or brothers who were chaperoning them come to know.”
This trip was a turning point for both the women and SEWA. From the responses of the women, it was clear that they were ready to do something and perhaps even take charge of their lives.
“When they went to Rajasthan or Gujarat or Maharashtra they saw how women in worse situations than theirs had changed their lives around. And I think that triggered the spark in them,” says Nanavaty.
It had taken all of three years to get this far, but the persistence had paid off. Once back in Kupwara after the tour, things began changing and SEWA found it had gained trust and access. The women, on their part, began talking within their families, sharing their experiences, particularly with their elders, both mothers and fathers, and, importantly, in-laws. They were now taking the lead.
Embroidery with local flourishes
Four moves had made a big difference. First was the involvement of the local NGO, the HELP Foundation. It provided a point of entry. Second was the decision by SEWA to have its own premises in Kupwara where the SEWA team stayed. This was seen as proof of the organization’s seriousness. Third was the exposure to the rest of India and the success stories that SEWA could showcase. Fourth was the enormous patience and empathy shown by Nanavaty and members of her team. Conflict zones are special, more so in the case of Kashmir.
“We rented a local place and they saw we are not a fly by night organization. We stayed there. We cooked there ourselves. We were there whenever they wanted us,” says Nanavaty.
“We were close to this Rajwar forested area near the LOC. There would be strikes all of a sudden. You would hear firing and my colleagues would be really nervous. I had to be with them,” she recalls.
“I had to reassure them that we were there all together. Whatever would happen would happen to all of us. I think that really made a big difference. Then we started going to the villages again.”
Shahnaza tells us she had to fight hard to get her family’s permission to go to Ahmedabad. Her father was particularly opposed to her going. And when she did go, he was livid when she returned.
“I pleaded with him that I had done nothing wrong. He even hit me. I told him how Ela ben and Reema ben had looked after us, like we were their own children,” she says.
“We were 25 girls. Till then I had not been outside Kupwara. For the first time I went to Srinagar. Then to Jammu. And Delhi and Ahmedabad. I was so happy. I felt like I had reached the moon,” she says.
“In Ahmedabad we saw how the women of SEWA worked. They depended on no one. They earned money and looked after their children. Their men also worked. We decided we should have a skilling centre, like the one in Ahmedabad, in Kupwara where at least 100 women could learn and find employment. So, we demanded such a centre from the senior people in SEWA. We were there for 12 days,” she says.
“What impressed me most was how they earned their own money and how united they were. There were absolutely no religious divisions or bias. They worked together with love.”
Shahnaza’s example showcases how the initiative in Kupwara has discovered talent and leadership among the women of the district. She was not just a quick learner but had the capacity to become a master trainer.
“When the SEWA centre opened here, I took 12 girls with me to learn stitching, weaving and solar repairing. I learnt solar repairing in 15 days. I now do weaving and teach it too,” she says.
From her first earnings Shahnaza bought gifts for her parents and siblings, finally winning over her father. Over time, she has supplemented her family’s income. She says she makes at least Rs 10,000 a month. Her sisters are now married and her brother is in the police force.
“The same people in my village who were against us joining SEWA today salaam us. We have an identity. We have also improved our village and resolved issues like water and introduced solar lighting,” says Shahnaza.
Such personal testimonies are priceless. Plenty are to be found in Kupwara and Ganderbal. Civil Society spoke to Shahnaza first in Kupwara and then on Zoom from Gurugram. She is strikingly independent and spirited. She is her own person.
So also is Shameema Begum, who is president of the association. Her involvement with SEWA goes back to 2011. Shameema chose food processing as her line of business. She was also lucky to get the full support of her family.
“I took one month of training in food processing in Ahmedabad followed by advanced training in subsequent years. I have a small unit at my home and there I train some of the girls of my village,” says Shameema.
She began by making pickles and apple jam and then forayed into the making of snacks and modern bakery items. She received training in making doughnuts, chocolate cakes, chocolate dates, muffins and pastries.
“The food processing unit started its operations with samosas, mathis and other snacks. Now we do modern bakery items,” said Shameema. She has trained others in her village in food processing and is also involved with the National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM).
Shafia, 20, is one of the girls who connected with Shameema and was trained at the Shehjar centre. The small oven, she says, makes it difficult for them to meet market demands. A big oven is on its way and much awaited.
Nusrat, also 20, says that they are in touch with the people likely to place orders for modern bakery items. She exudes confidence that with the larger oven they would be able to meet bigger orders.
Exquisite local creations find markets through the SEWA network
Shireen Begum is one of the master trainers at the handicrafts centre who says she has trained more than 150 girls.
In her forties, Shireen said that she got her own training at the centre itself and employment as a master trainer followed.
“We provide basic training to the girls at this centre and they are able to make various handmade items. Once they get the basic skills, they upgrade to the higher levels following which they make designer items like wall hangings, bags, mobile pouches, apparel and many more,” says Shireen.
Girls like Shaheen Qayoom, Khalida, Tasleema, Safeena and Afsana work at the centre for a monthly wage, making handicrafts. Some time back they received an order from well-known designer Ritu Kumar.
It is a growing sisterhood that is in evidence. The young women cheerfully use ben with their names in Gujarati style — ben meaning sister. So it is that we meet Shahnaza ben, Shameema ben and Nusrat ben and so on in Kashmir. The circle with SEWA has been finally closed and with it has come the integration of these far-flung parts with the rest of India and the prosperity that it brings with it.
(With reporting by Jehangir Rashid)