In Pakistan, enterprising Afghan refugee women are stepping forward to support their families, learn skills and run small businesses.
By Zikrea Saleah in Peshawar, Pakistan
When the COVID-19 pandemic started impacting the lives and livelihoods of millions of people, refugees in Pakistan were no exception. Many households rely on informal or day labour which can render them vulnerable to lockdowns and other economic disruptions.
Maryum felt the pandemic’s effect hard. She lives in one of the remaining Afghan refugee villages in Pakistan’s north-western Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province as part of a family of seven who had been relying on their father’s daily wage. As the first waves of the virus hit the country and restrictions on movement set in, his offers of work and earnings disappeared.
In the initial days Maryum recalls her sense of fear over the unpredictability of the situation. “Three of my siblings had medical conditions and my father who was the sole breadwinner of the family could not afford to continue their treatment,” she says.
Not having worked before, except to support her father from time to time, she began to think about what she could do to help. Though coming from a socially conservative village where women are not known to work, she decided she could not sit back; she had to take the initiative to do something to support herself and her family.
“I needed to do something.”
She eventually decided on trying her hand at a course offered by UNHCR through a local partner that was teaching refugees the skills needed to run a small business.
“I saw this course and decided I could do it, but without really knowing where it would take me. I needed to do something”, she says.
She took part in the two-month course in 2020 and felt immediately absorbed by the new information and more confident with the basic skills and knowledge provided to run a small business, including the basic management of stock and book-keeping.
The course also provided in-kind support to increase the size and capacity of the tuckshop she had started to run.
These days she says she feels great satisfaction running the shop and a new motivation in her life. “I’m eager to get going every morning. It feels great to run the shop and share the burden with my father for our large family”.
“My shop serves as a place where women and children can visit and buy items they want in a comfortable way.”
Maryum’s tuckshop also fills a niche market within the village as it is a store that caters mainly to women and children. Maryum had identified this as an opportunity herself and realized she could make a business out of it.
“In my village women are not allowed to go out alone to markets. My shop serves as a place where women and children can visit and buy items they want in a comfortable way,” she adds. The big sellers are daily essentials – staples like beans, and among children the candies.
UNHCR has supported training for over 60 small home-based businesses owned by Afghan refugees in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa since 2019, as well as training 5,000 youth in vocational work skills. Among the trainees, women are also coming forward to learn and gain skills and pursuing opportunities in crafts, carpets, clothes tailoring and design, among others.
UNHCR and partners are providing over 30 different livelihoods training opportunities in Pakistan for men and women in skills as diverse as bee-keeping, electrical and mobile repairs, and operating heavy machinery.
Gayrat Ahmadshoev, UNHCR’s Head of Sub-Office in Peshawar, believes that offering youth and women both education and livelihoods opportunities is vitally important, especially to boost self-reliance in refugee communities.
“It’s an investment in the potential that refugees have, the contribution they can make to Pakistan, and it’s also important for their futures”, he says.
UNHCR is working closely with Pakistan’s Commissionerate for Afghan Refugees (CAR), the local authorities in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and partners to design and support vocational and skills training opportunities.
Ahmadshoev especially welcomes the fact that women are participating in the livelihoods programmes. More than 30 per cent of skills and vocational training places are now taken up by refugee and host community women.
“We want to ensure they are also able to make a safe and sustainable living that meets their basic needs and contributes to their families and communities,” he explains.
Ahmadshoev believes that training does not only contribute to better opportunities for refugees while they are living in Pakistan; it also builds skills that refugees can bring home to Afghanistan when conditions allow for a safe, dignified, and sustainable return.
He says it is critical that the investments are made now in refugees, as well as increasing the support to host communities in countries like Pakistan as a demonstration of more equitable responsibility sharing.
“I dream of becoming a leading businesswoman in my community one day.”
UNHCR is raising more support for livelihoods in Pakistan as part of an on-going effort to implement a Solutions Strategy for Afghan Refugees. This requires concrete contributions from the international community in support of refugees which are not limited to financial support, but also technical assistance and opportunities like scholarships.
Maryum is an example of the vitality and sense of initiative latent in the refugee community. While she takes a lot of pride in supporting her family and in her achievements so far, she doesn’t want to stop there. She has bigger aspirations. “I dream of becoming a leading businesswoman in my community one day,” she says.