HYDERABAD: Moolan Bai, once a peasant woman, working with the men in her family to cultivate crops, now runs a cloth shop at her makeshift hut in the desert village Mithrio in Tharparkar district. She has also motivated her young son to stitch dresses, which she puts on display at the home-shop for sale.
She provides unstitched cloth and other materials to him and he designs dresses to attract clients.
After this new initiative, Moolan Bai is among several peasant women who feel financially safer. While the men support women in their work, they also grow crops for domestic consumption as well as for animal fodder.
Moolan Bai said almost all artisan women and those who have launched tailoring and cap-making shops, embroidery and shawl-weaving businesses, and other small businesses might not migrate to canal areas, as they felt financially safer with earnings from their handicraft skills.
This yea, heavy rains have changed the area’s demography, and many people did not migrate to barrage areas for agriculture work or animal rearing. Others stayed home because of Covid-19 restrictions.
Chando Menghwar, wife of Jalal Menghwar, resident of village Khekenue near Mithi, runs a grocery shop.
As she sat outside her hut in the warm winter sun for needlework, she said they owned some land, which they cultivated after rains. “If there is a delay in rains, we suffer,” she said.
Her family also holds some animals as an alternative source of income. They use some of the milk and yogurt for their own consumption.
Khekenue village has around 102 households, traditionally comprising of herders and farmers. But poverty has forced many women to start selling their traditional handicrafts. Women stitch clothes, do embroidery or make caps for contractors on a wage.
The husband of Chando Menghwar used to work on daily wages at a brick kiln unit near Nao Kot (ancient fort). He earned around Rs300-Rs400/day, which was not enough to meet their family needs. Now the couple works together and live comfortably on the income from their grocery shop.
It is an old practice among desert families to migrate to different parts of Sindh if there is a shortage of fodder or if there is a drought. This year, heavy rainfall benefited the herders and farmers, as once dried sand dunes have turned green.
Some women also sell ‘manihari items’ (cosmetics, facial, hair-care and beauty products). Use of beauty products seems to be on growth trajectory in villages too now.
Many families used to travel to distant areas in search of work, and there if they took a loan, they used to get stuck in the vicious debt trap. Financial integration of women has also cut down the number of families stuck in the debt trap.
However, uncertainty has once again increased for these families working in the informal sectors amidst the second wave of the new coronavirus pandemic.
Kanhai Asnani of Thardeep Rural Development Programme (TRDP), who is working with these women entrepreneurs, said they have transferred 4,898 assets, out of which 720 were given for promoting entrepreneurship among Thari women.
Previously, most of these women belonging to economically poor backgrounds, and had no confidence to run any business. Now, they have developed bargaining skills to deal with customers, mostly hailing from the same village or neighbourhood.
It was their choice whether they wanted to keep livestock, run a grocery store, sell clothes, or display readymade items or fast moving consumer goods, he said.
Random interviews with different women entrepreneurs at their homes revealed that they were hopefully of prosperity with the New Year coming up. They have experienced extreme heat, dryness, rise and fall in terms of their home-based businesses and above all changing landscape in the wake of heavy rains a few months ago.
The situation in terms of gender equity in Thar Desert is different compared to tribal or feudal systems, where women cannot take risks to do business or anything without men’s permission. Development of road networks and transportation from sandy villages to the market has made it easier for women to access the markets on their own.
Acquisition of bargaining skills has also enabled them to conduct their businesses both at the shop and in the market more successfully.
Interestingly, a large number of men in these localities are associated with garment factories in Karachi.
Some of the skilled workers have thus taken over the reins of the family business and stitch the cloth that the women get from the market to sell at the family shops.
Hajani Jatt, a woman entrepreneur in village Cheel Bund, the desert part of Umerkot district, wearing a traditional embroidered dress, said the old fashions were gone. New generation of the community neither liked to wear it on happy occasions nor showed interest in learning such old hand embroidery work to keep the skill alive.
Thus, this old costly fashion that employed a variety of needlework is dying. Only a small number of elderly women might buy these old-fashioned clothes, she said. “These dresses were also expenses, and with inflation so high, the cost of the dresses was becoming unbearable,” she said.
Since the women know the demands, they know what to get from the main markets too. Shops display a variety of stitched and unstitched cloth for men, women, and children, embroidered items, and other goods.
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