Lending a hand

Imaduddin Ahmed | The Friday Times 14 April, 2005

At first glance it could have been mistaken for just another commercial fair; over 30 stalls, four nations and Pakistan’s four provinces and northern areas represented, people coming in and enjoying the atmosphere. The unsuspecting visitor had been lured into the pleasant family-friendly environment of the Alhamra Arts Council Burney Gardens in Lahore with promises of beautiful handmade crafts from around South Asia.

But what the estimated near fifteen thousand casual visitors quickly became aware of was that the Mela had been set up with motives ulterior to commercial ones. The Mela had the products, it had the organizations selling those products and it had the women who made those products, giving them direct exposure to their clientele.

“I think it achieved an objective of not being a big commercial bazaar. It was about the presence of the women workers themselves. The plight of the home-based workers was so vividly portrayed by the theatre groups [Rasti, Chanan, Aan and Ajoka] that it brought the message back to the casual visitor that it’s not about the product but about the worker who made it; making invisible hands visible,” said former actress Shameem Hilaly who sat on Aurat Foundation’s Mela Management Committee.

Perhaps the most aesthetically powerful moment of the Mela was the inauguration. The chief guests of the Mela, the home-based workers of South Asia, collected in a line of solidarity to tie up separate ribbons to symbolize a unified network, singing a song of their determination to adorn a world of their choice. The spectrum of colours and designs of their clothes and of their faces spoke bounds of the rich diversity of race and culture throughout Pakistan and South Asia. As the song ended, there was a trade unionist chant of “Hum Saab Eik Hai!” followed by “Pakistan Zindabad!” and “Aurat Foundation Zindabad!” An awkward pause followed as the host organizers felt a tinge of embarrassment and amusement at how the universal message had been hijacked. With a warm, calm and disarming smile, Renana Jhabvala, National Coordinator of India’s SEWA trade union, brought the international event back into the realms of political correctness as she led the chants “Poora HomeNet South Asia Zindabad!” and “UNIFEM Zindabad!” The home-based workers of South Asia were finally center-stage.

These women are not the beggars on the streets who sacrifice their dignity and self-respect for pittance money. These women work between 5 am and 10 pm, tending to domestic work and the livestock in villages, as well as carrying on piece-rate work or small businesses to make ends meet. This, while many of their husbands were ‘kharab’ – they chose not to work. Though they may keep chickens and cows, few are able to eat meat, except on special occasions like Eid and at weddings. These women are not appropriately recognized for their significant contribution to South Asia’s economy, as many of them receive no benefits from their country’s development.

One of the objectives of the Mela was to gain popular support and hence form a platform to lobby the Pakistan government into ratifying the International Labour Organizations’ Convention 177. The Convention, ratified so far only by Ireland and Finland, would mean that the Pakistan government would agree to form a national policy on home work aimed at improving the workers’ situation and make social security protection statutory, set minimum wages and regulations for health and safety at the work place. According to Khan Fasahat Rahman, a retired official of the Punjab Labour Welfare Department, such laws are lofty and there will be difficulties in monitoring their implementation. Nonetheless, setting practices of decency into the law can over time determine what society accepts as moral and can raise workers’ expectations for their working conditions and compensation.

One of the objectives of the Mela was to gain popular support and hence form a platform to lobby the Pakistan government into ratifying the International Labour Organizations’ Convention 177. The Convention, ratified so far only by Ireland and Finland, would mean that the Pakistan government would agree to form a national policy on home work aimed at improving the workers’ situation and make social security protection statutory, set minimum wages and regulations for health and safety at the work place. According to Khan Fasahat Rahman, a retired official of the Punjab Labour Welfare Department, such laws are lofty and there will be difficulties in monitoring their implementation. Nonetheless, setting practices of decency into the law can over time determine what society accepts as moral and can raise workers’ expectations for their working conditions and compensation.

SEWA of India (a trade union of 700 000 women), Al Falah of Karachi and Behbud Association do provide the home-based workers in their employment with social security and health care, and a number of organizations, such as the Sungi Development Foundation of Abbotabad and Bint-e-Malakand of NWFP provide both health care and education. So while the convention may set lofty targets for the government, they are achievable and a must if the government believes in the protection of its citizens. With the purchase of F-16s from the USA and 4 warships from China, it seemingly does.

The organizers had high praise for several Punjab and Lahore government agencies’ collaborative efforts, whose sympathy for the cause greatly facilitated the event, including, among other things, securing the venue for free. If the number of legislators, bureaucrats and army officers that attended with their families is anything to go by, we have cause for optimism that the plight of home-based workers may come to the notice of our government. Not all government agencies, however, were so supportive; the Pakistan embassy in Bangladesh failed to issue the absent Bangladeshi home-based workers visas on time. Ironic that there should be trouble with Bangladesh, of all nations.

The event, however, was not only an eye opener into the way of life of the home-based workers for the public and the government, but for the organizers as well. Aurat Foundation’s Misbah Tahir, whose brain-child the Mela was, recalls, “We discovered that all the four participants from Tharparkar had tuberculosis and a married couple had a very sick child. We sent for a doctor, but the father refused to have him treated. We sent five people to persuade him to let the child be treated but he always replied, ‘So what if he dies? We’ll have another child next year.’ So dire is the condition of medical facilities in the Sindh and Balochistan that people will have fourteen children, expecting only about six of them to survive and become desensitized to the death of even their own children.”

Public awareness raising and government lobbying aside, the most exciting aspect of the Mela was how it was empowering those who it was intended for and how unified they felt in their struggle. Zahida Parveen from Lahore came and chased me down a day after I interviewed her to chat, “It feels like we’re all one community [within this collection of stalls], and we’re all like one family. I made parathas with the Indians yesterday.” Organizers requested the HomeNet India stall to raise their prices so they wouldn’t under-cut the rest of stalls on price and force a price race to the bottom, where the biggest losers would be the home-based workers. It worked out for the Indian stall as well, as the Lahoris rushed to buy hand woven garments for fair prices.

Puran Rai from Nepal expressed how impressed she was with the Lahori customer, “We’ve been to so many melas, but this is unique because it looks like a “para likha” educated mela. Here good people are coming to us and speaking decently. We are sitting here with respect and dignity. They are not bargaining down the prices we have set.”

Many rural and small-town Pakistani women admitted to being scared about coming to a big city like Lahore and were anxious about how they would interact with the people. They were expecting hooting young men. A number of Balochistani husbands from Quetta stayed in the offices of the organizations that had taken their wives to Lahore, not wanting their communities to know that their wives had left for Lahore unaccompanied by their husbands.

In a debriefing session, the women lauded the atmosphere created, “The respect and honour and security we got, the way we were looked after and pampered, we’ve never been given such importance in our lives,” said 35 year old Jugni who came with her 12 year old daughter worker from Got Lashari Sheikh Burkhiyo, District Hyderabad in Sindh. Shumail Khatoon of Panjpai, District Sibbi in Balochistan looked to the future,”If Aurat Foundation does this sort of Mela and gives us this much security, and confidence, a time will come when when we will need no one’s [organizations’] support and come independently to sell our goods.”

Women independently selling their goods directly to their markets would be a huge leap forward for women becoming independent, and we can look towards one of the Mela’s most prosperous home-based worker participant as an example. Gul Jabeen of Abbotabad earns anything from Rs 6 000 a month to beyondRs 14 000 in an excellent month with her two daughters. She has built herself her house and married her daughter and provided her with all her household goods. She has also married off her son and given her daughter-in-law a dowry of Rs 180 000 in jewelry. When asked who had the decision making power at home, she said that when she was not earning much, her husband did, but her financial independence gave her all the authority.

Asked what they had lost and what they had gained from the experience of selling their products directly in the big city, Sayeeda of Dera Shubqadar Kunoozae, District Charsadda in the NWFP stood up and said, “I lost my fear, I lost my lack of confidence.” If confidence is the first step in challenging oppression, we’ve witnessed the first sparks of a mini-revolution.

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