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Stitching the Fabric of Dreams

By Midhat Ali Zaidi

Jhang District, Punjab - 23 December 2015: The sound of many sewing machines working in unison breaks the quiet hum of life in Thatta Kuriyana, a small village in Jhang District, Punjab province. These machines are being worked by adolescent girls learning the art of dress-making and embroidery at a training centre set up by the provincial Department of Labour and Human Resources (L&HRD), with support from the Swiss National Committee (NATCOM) for UNICEF. The programme offers free government-certified skills training to two thousand young people, the majority of whom rank as the most excluded adolescents in the district. 


© UNICEF/Pakistan/2015/MobeenAnsari
Girls learn to stitch clothes at a local training centre in Thatta Kuryana village. Most were previously engaged in hazardous forms of child labour, as families in this area are often too poor to support the education of their children.

Thatta Kuriyana village is situated beside the Chenab River, making it susceptible to flooding during the monsoon season. Frequent flooding destroys crops, renders damage to the infrastructure, and leaves the education system impaired, since public schools are readily used to provide shelter to flood-affected populations. The destruction of homes and schools in this already impoverished community has unfortunately caused a steep rise in child labour, predominantly hazardous in nature.

Aasma (17) is one of the beneficiaries of this programme. The youngest of six siblings, she was forced to quit her education after 5th grade, like most girls in this area. Her father, Sultan (65) works odd jobs and runs a donkey cart transporting fertiliser and bricks within the community, which earns him a mere two to three hundred rupees a day (USD2-3). As his income is too small to support a big family, other family members must take up menial jobs either in the fields or in local industries. Two of her brothers were sent to work at textile mills in the city, while Aasma and her sisters worked in the fields gathering different crops such as sugar cane and vegetables in the winter, or harvesting wheat and rice during other seasons to supplement the income of her family.

“We worked on local farms during harvest season,” says Aasma. “It is very hard labour for any girl to work in the open from dawn to dusk during harsh weather (up to 50º Celsius in summer and 2º Celsius in winter). I often suffered cuts and bruises from the sharp tools used for cutting sugar cane and wheat, while the men who supervised our work used to harass me and my sisters.”


© UNICEF/Pakistan/2015/MobeenAnsari
Aasma (17) with her parents Sultan (65) and Haleema Bibi (58) at their house in Thatta Kuriyana Village. She is a beneficiary of the UNICEF-supported programme to provide skills training to adolescents engaged in hazardous forms of child labour.

Aasma learned the skill of dress-making at the Swiss NATCOM-supported centre, which is hardly a ten minutes’ walk from her house. She now helps her brother with his tailoring business and earns enough to avoid the harsh life of a seasonal farm worker.

“I earn up to three thousand rupees (USD30) each month, while working from home,” she says with much pride. “I have never earned this much money before, as I was paid only 60 rupees (USD 0.6) for an entire day’s work picking cotton or harvesting vegetables in the fields.”


© UNICEF/Pakistan/2015/MobeenAnsari
Aasma (17) works as a seamstress at her home, stitching clothes for the village women. She is glad that she no longer has to work in the fields and can now earn up to three thousand rupees (USD 30) a month.

Her income, although meagre, is a welcome reprieve for the poverty-stricken household. Aasma’s parents are also happy that she has learned a skill which will stay with her throughout life.
“She is earning a good amount of money from stitching clothes,” says Aasma’s mother Haleema Bibi with great joy. Aasma now stitches clothes for the other women in her family and helps her mother with household chores in her free time.”


© UNICEF/Pakistan/2015/MobeenAnsari
Aasma helps with the household chores, including looking after the cattle, while she works from home as a seamstress.

Eighty (80) training centres were set up in Jhang district, which suffered large-scale destruction in the 2014 floods. Dress-making and embroidery have been the most popular skills demanded by beneficiaries of the programme, which was designed to provide free skills trainings locally to adolescents previously engaged in hazardous labour. Furthermore, most beneficiaries of the programme are girls (96 per cent) who previously worked in the fields, brick kilns and weaving units in order to supplement the income of their families.


© UNICEF/Pakistan/2015/MobeenAnsari
Girls learn embroidery skills at a Swiss NATCOM-supported centre in Thattha Kuriyana village, Jhang district, Punjab province. 

“During the needs assessment survey we noticed that parents were more willing to let their girls learn the traditional skills of dress-making and embroidery than to have their boys quit jobs in factories or workshops to receive vocational training,” says Rana Shahid, local project manager of AWAM DOST Foundation. While reflecting on this gender-biased trend, he commented that “the area has a high level of disparity when considering employment opportunities for adolescent girls and boys. So while boys are likely to get a job at local industrial units, girls are left to eke out an income through various odd jobs.”

As part of the L&HRD programme, trainees received instruction in dress-making, beauty therapy, computing, fabric printing, electrics and embroidery work. Following graduation, the top-ten students at each centre were provided complimentary business start-up toolkits.

“This achievement, however, was not met without challenges,” says Peta-Gaye Bookall, Child Protection Officer for UNICEF. “Owing to the frequent transfer of key decision-making staff, the project experienced delays in implementation and a lack of progress on the activities agreed upon with the L&HRD. The necessity for government officials to engage in competing official duties, such as Local Government Elections in 2015 and the flood response in 2014, also constrained the delivery of timely results. Furthermore, a few of the training centres were located in remote and flood-affected areas of Jhang, which raised concerns for some of the female trainees. In response to this, the girls decided amongst themselves to travel in groups so as to continue with their courses, which is demonstrative of the adolescents’ resilience and commitment to their economic empowerment.”

Despite these challenges, L&HRD has successfully implemented the Swiss NATCOM- funded vocational training programme for 2,000 adolescents, who now have the opportunity to earn a respectable living by using their newly-acquired skills.

 

 

 
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