Home based women worker – a portrait of arduous struggle

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Merely 27 years old, Sadaf is an embroidery expert who uses her skills to create beautiful patterns on shirts and dupattas. A homemaker, a bread-earner, as well as a mother living in Karachi’s outskirts area in Baldia town. Sadaf’s routine took an unexpected turn some two years ago when she became part of a Home-based Women Workers (HBWWs) group created by HomeNet Pakistan where she learned about how a home-based worker can be strengthened and made successful. She keenly attended the mobilization meetings conducted by HomeNet staff where she was acquainted with details about improved livelihoods for informal sector workers.

Sadaf recalls, “Before meeting HomeNet and attending their mobilization meetings, I did not know how to use my skills in different ways. In fact, I would say that I was unaware of my potential and my capabilities! I only worked on the sewing machine for stitching clothes and did embroidery on the dresses of my own. As an informal sector worker, I faced different challenges like lack of desired material, inability to purchase raw material, limited knowledge of product ideation and limited money to invest in my business. My family was not supportive in the beginning and did not have a proper place as I occupied only one room of my house to get orders from markets as a newcomer. Now I have expanded my business by using the upper portion of my home as a display area for the dresses. I also want to hire more workers so that I can meet the demand of new orders, and I have plans to improve my product quality so that I can have access to bigger markets. If it were not for HomeNet, my life would have continued to revolve around routine chores and catering to the needs of my family”.

Sadaf is just one of the thousands of home-based women workers who are associated with HomeNet Pakistan (HNP) that has been working to give recognition and support to the home-based workers since 2005 across the country. It is composed of a network of 360 home-based worker’s organisations, demonstrating 50,000 female members from 50 districts of Pakistan. HNP believes that women in the informal economy need to be recognised as working women instead of being considered as a poor, deserving and insignificant part of the society. They must be considered as producers and artisans. Their productivity has to be increased by imparting skill development training, improved technologies, direct access to credit schemes, effective marketing opportunities of their products and putting them under some trade/labour policy of the country.

While explaining the progress, Programme Manager HomeNet Naheed Syed informed that a large number of HBWWs have learned about their rights and business opportunities under the project of UN Women called Economic Empowerment of Women Home-based Workers and Excluded Groups in Pakistan. “The project was implemented in some parts of Karachi and the district Thatta. Initially, a baseline survey was conducted of 3500 women home-based workers, which helped in identifying the needs and assessment of these home-based workers,” Naheed said.

“So far, hundreds of women have taken interest-free loans from a microfinance institution in both cities, and 2500 women HBWs and girls have been sensitized on pro-women legislation, provincial protection mechanisms on violence against women, and laws against harassment and domestic violence. Another 1900 HBWs have received financial literacy training and 150 have been linked with an online platform where they can sell their products worldwide”.

“In Thatta District, the District Action Committee (DAC) is very active, which is actually a community-based body that lobbies and advocate for recognition and support of HBWs and excluded groups and for their access to public services. The DAC has helped identify 1100 women HBWs and excluded groups in Thatta, helping 217 women HBWs obtain Computerized National Identity Cards for the first time. Many HBWs have taken interest-free loans and have gained business development and e-commerce skills. Due to DAC efforts, the Women Social Welfare Department’s Community vocational Centre in Gharo has now been reopened after four years. It will surely play a vital role to be a ‘Training Centre’ and will serve the need of local women HBWs. We can proudly quote such figures as our project’s progress” Naheed elaborated.

A home-based daily wage worker, Khadija is among the thousands of women in Sindh whose stories of poverty, deprivation, back-breaking work hours and exploitation rarely make the news or inspire labour policy changes. “I have three children, my husband used to work as an electrician but due to his severe kidney issues he does not work properly, now the whole burden is on me and I am running the house single-handedly by stitching clothes. Besides this, I am thankful to God for my family’s support. I am not even matric to know about the nitty-gritty of the garment business. Thanks to HomeNet Pakistan who are there to assist me and hundreds of women on dealing with customers and making a profit.” Khadija stressed that home-based workers will be unable to speak up until they get full awareness about their own legitimate rights.

Her health doesn’t allow her to go out for work in a factory or any other workplace, so she works from home by stitching dresses and assembling a bundle of towels for Rs1 per piece, which the agent sells for Rs 10 in the market. Highlighting the hurdles in taking work from an agent, Khadija said the workers don’t even know who their employer is, they can’t even raise their voices too much for an increase in their payment because the middle man could just stop giving them work.

Talking about the comprehensive provincial policy on Home-based workers approved by the Sindh government in November 2016 Naheed said that in the light of this policy, home-based workers would be entitled to social security, pension, right to unionise, collective bargaining and other benefits a labourer was ought to have as per law. Moreover, they could also now reach out to labour courts for hearing of their cases.

“The implementation of the Sindh Home-Based Workers Act, 2018, which advocates for the rights of home-based women workers, may bring a positive change in their lives. Be it Policy Making or passing the Act from Sindh Assembly, HomeNet’s untiring efforts are surely for the prosperity of HBWWs” Naheed further added.

Fatima Rasheed, a 35-year-old widow is a self-motivated and committed home-based woman worker from Baldia Town, Karachi, who makes dresses and works for HNP. The elements that helped her to become a successful entrepreneur were proper training and guidance provided by HNP under the UN Women Project.

“I am a social mobilizer of HomeNet Pakistan. I have three sons. After my husband died, my brothers supported me in the beginning, but I did not want to become a burden on anyone. I was skilled enough to stitch clothes and wanted to run my stitching business on a small scale but I had no clue where to start from until HNP provided me with an employment opportunity and made me confident, passionate and entrepreneur through their financial literacy programmer. I have learned how one can manage one’s finances efficiently,” Fatima shared.

Fatima realized by being more creative with her existing traditional embroidery skills and aar work, she could customize her products to market demand and then sell them at the profitable price. This way she could earn money for herself and her family.

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