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In exile, Afghan women find new freedoms

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For Afghan refugee women who escaped their war-torn homeland to the Pakistani city of Quetta, chances to celebrate personal accomplishments and independence are rare. But in September 2008, Catholic Relief Services brought together 150 women from three different urban communities for a graduation ceremony. Each had completed a year-long skills training and basic education program.

Afghan refugee women learn basic math and literacy skills in a CRS classroom. Due to cultural constraints, they do not allow their faces to be photographed. Photo by Joe Lapp for CRS

For many of the participants, explains CRS program manager Rahima Khan, the event was their first-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet women from outside their home communities.

A year ago, such a gathering would not have been possible. Under tribal and religious traditions, many women found it difficult to get permission to leave their family homes, even to come learn at the CRS-established community centers in their own neighborhoods.

But by demonstrating respect for and long-term commitment to Afghan communities, CRS staff gained people's trust in Quetta. When fathers and husbands began to see the benefits of their wives and daughters attending CRS classes, their doubt turned into enthusiastic support.

Fashioning a Better Life

At the community centers, women refined and adapted their traditional weaving and embroidery skills. Equally important, they received basic math and literacy education and learned how to market their products to eager Pakistani consumers.

Far from being relics of a bygone era, traditional weaving and embroidery have a growing appeal in the clothing and accessories markets of Pakistan. A lack of quality control, marketing savvy and basic mathematics, however, was keeping many women from successfully selling their handwork.

CRS helped the program participants overcome these barriers. Local staff taught entrepreneurial skills, updated traditional designs and helped women form business groups so they could work collectively to strengthen their voice in the market.

For women like 20-year-old Rubina, CRS classes were the first opportunity for schooling of any kind. "Before, I did not even know how to write my name," she says, "but now I can write my name and calculate small sums." Rubina's home-based handcrafts business has improved now that she can write down orders and calculate costs, thereby ensuring profits and a fair price when bargaining for supplies.

Widening Horizons

As part of a "field trip" organized by CRS to expose the women to commerce in larger markets, Rubina traveled to the Pakistani city of Lahore, a design and fashion center. There, 800 miles from home, she visited fashionable boutiques and fabric markets, receiving orders for her current products and getting ideas for new ones. For the first time, she experienced the world outside her home in Quetta.

The women receive certificates at a special celebration ending their year-long skills training and basic education program provided through CRS Pakistan. Photo by Joe Lapp for CRS

"I kept thinking, 'Is it true? Is it me, that I am in Lahore?' " Rubina says of her trip. "My father is very strict. Before coming to the CRS center I never even went out to my neighbor's house. So without CRS I [would] have never gone to any bazaar, not even in Quetta."

Now Rubina has opportunities and an independence that she never dreamed of. She regularly makes 2,000 rupees (about $30) a month, a significant contribution to the family income. Sometimes she even is able to spend some of the money on herself.

At the program's graduation, Rubina stood in front of her friends and fellow program participants and thanked CRS staff for the learning and freedom she has gained. "Before, Rubina was not so sure of herself," says Khan. "But now to see her speaking on the stage in front of all those women shows that she has gained confidence. At this event, I became convinced that she and the other women have understood the importance of education in having a good life and a successful business."