Through vocational training, brick kiln workers hope to escape the cycle of poverty
By Fatima Raja
Dagaich Village, Lahore, 2010 – A group of teenaged girls are crowded into a small room, laughing and chattering as they work amidst the clatter of a sewing machine. Lit by the fierce sunlight streaming in through the door, they bend over mounds of colourful fabrics. In their minds and playful conversation, and through their skilful fingers, these scraps of material will be turned into a new dress for a baby or a summer wardrobe for a fashionable young village woman. Sitting in the midst of this active scene, Shameem Adhi watches her pupils contentedly.
Married to a soldier and the mother of six children, Ms Adhi lives in a nearby village. Every afternoon, she spends two hours here in the tiny three-room building, teaching dressmaking and embroidery to girls and young women at the Dagaich Village Non-Formal Education Centre.
This is one of 16 centres established by UNICEF in partnership with Barclays Bank that funds the project. Since 2008, these centres have provided a locus from which children from families who work at brick kilns can receive a non-formal course of education and, where possible, progress to mainstream education. At present, 2,350 children are studying in 16 centres in Lahore and Faisalabad.
Families working in brick kilns are traditionally some of the most marginalised communities in Pakistan. Many are trapped in debt bondage: seeking loans from kiln owners for medical or family expenses, or simply to weather the monsoon season when brickmaking comes to a halt, they spend the rest of the year paying back the loan at exorbitant interest rates. Since payment is by number of bricks made, entire families, even young children, are employed in this hazardous and exploitative work. A 2008 mapping survey at these sites found only three per cent of children were enrolled in primary school.
An entire family works 14 hours a day, six days a week shaping mud into bricks in the searing heat to earn about Rs 6,000 (US$ 71) a month. Of this, a third or even half is deducted by the kiln owners towards repayment of the debt, and workers often have little understanding of the rate at which their repayment is assessed. This also leaves them extremely vulnerable to shocks as such sudden medical expenses.
To slightly ameliorate this situation, UNICEF’s partners have initiated vocational training at some Non-Formal Education Centres. “By teaching women and girls to stitch clothes, we create an alternative channel of income to supplement their earnings at the brick kilns,” says Atiq-ur-Rahman, the project manager from Bunyad Foundation, UNICEF’s local partner here. At the very least, we help them to save the Rs 200–300 they might have to pay a seamstress to make their own or their children’s clothes.”
“I have a good system by which to teach,” says Ms Adhi. “I start with teaching basic hand stitching, hemming and embroidery to get them interested. Then I teach them to make simple undergarments, and only then move on to shalwar kameez. Finally, I teach them how to take care of their tool: the sewing machine.”
Some of her pupils have already started excelling. Nasreen Mushtaq, like many women here, does not know her age. She is the mother of three children of whom the eldest, a girl, is six years old and has been enrolled in a primary school with UNICEF support. Ms Mushtaq’s husband works at a brick kiln, where he earns about Rs 8,000 (US$ 95) a month, of which half is deducted towards repaying a loan.
“I used to pay Rs 100 (US$ 1.20) to a seamstress to stitch me a new shalwar kameez,” she says. “Now I can do it myself and save that money. What’s more, I stitch other people’s clothes for Rs 50 (US$ 0.60). I don’t charge more because I can only do very basic stitching yet.” Nevertheless, even with this meagre amount, Ms Mushtaq has earned enough to buy herself an iron to help with her work. “It’s difficult to manage in our tiny income when simply buying enough flour to live costs about Rs 500 (US$ 6). So this has been a blessing, this new facility.”
In the training room, completed suits of clothes hang from nails on the bare walls, their varied styles showing the keen interest the pupils take in the latest trends. Even babies’ clothes are lovingly ornamented – now that women do not have to pay others to stitch them, they decorate them to their hearts’ content. Ms Adhi is delighted by the results of her teaching. “Now several of the women have said to me, we want to start working properly so that we can get out of the brick kilns,” she says. “I said, we’ll take in stitching work, save up the money, and together we’ll open up our own business.”