Fair Trade at the Frontiers: report on talk by Maryam Bibi of Kwendo Kor

Elma Sinclair reports on a recent OFTC event.

At the beginning of July, the OFTC and Oxford Quakers hosted a talk by Maryam Bibi, Chief Executive of Khwendo Kor (KK) in which she described its work on the Afghan/ Pakistan border, where its staff have faced bombs, army campaigns, the Pakistan floods and the biggest movement of refugees since the partition of India. However, as Maryam told us, life has never been easy for women in this patriarchal and conservative area, where purdah means not just wearing the burquah, but being confined within the household, unable to meet even with women from other families. In 1993, Maryam, herself from the Tribal Areas, determined to make a better life for her fellow women and founded Khwendo Kor (Pashtun for “Sisters’ Home”).

As its work progressed , KK became aware of the need to provide a holistic solution, involving both men and women. Men control access to women but when they realise that villages where KK works produce healthier sons, they become willing to allow KK access. So KK runs medical camps and has trained hundreds of the traditional birth attendants to provide health education and safer deliveries. (Traditionally, the umbilical cord had been sealed by rubbing earth into it. Women had not been allowed to be treated by male doctors or to travel to the towns where female doctors were available. Infant and maternal mortality rates were among the worst in the world.)

Access gained, KK starts girls’ schools (now over 200). The informal nature of many of these schools, often in village houses, has enabled them to be kept open when Taliban rockets have forced the closure of government schools. Moreover, KK’s insistence that Village Women’s Committees should run the schools has given women the chance to meet together and gain confidence. Eventually, they ask for education for themselves, so KK now runs adult education centres also.

KK provides further opportunities for socialisation in classes training women, not only in agriculture and horticulture, but also to produce marketable goods. It shows them that items they traditionally make from dried grass (mazari), which can be
harvested even in desert areas, can be adapted and improved for a more lucrative foreign market. Thanks to Fair Trade, for the first time, these women have a little income of their own with which they can improve the living standards of their children (65% of the people of the Tribal Areas live below the official UN poverty level) and gain respect within the family.

The villagers’ trust won, they are ready to respond to KK’s further mission. Classes in subjects varying from women’s rights to inheritance and choice in marriage, to how to register to vote and how to hold local authorities to account for services, enable them to take on responsibility for their own further development. Even in war-torn, Taliban dominated areas, the villagers are finding a voice to demand peace and democracy. With increasing frequency, when army operations and Taliban bombing have forced KK staff to withdraw temporarily, they have returned to find that services have continued to operate under the supervision of the villagers themselves. That is when they know that they are winning the most important battle.

In Oxford, KK basketware can be bought from Fair Trade at St. Michael’s and the Windmill. A contact made at OFTC’s AGM has resulted in the New Internationalist adding some baskets to their online catalogue. See shop.newint.org/uk/storage-basket.html and http://shop.newint.org/uk/changair.html

Why not support Pashtun women’s independence by buying some Christmas presents from them?

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