The stark landscapes of Balochistan are a backdrop for the colourful embroidery of the region. Exceedingly fine work, all done by hand, it is recognized the world over for its fine quality. The skills are acquired from childhood onwards, but the women who do the work live in remote corners of the province. Confined to their homes, they are cut off, not just from the rest of the world but even the provincial capital of Quetta.
Deedar Mengal has taken it upon herself to reach out to these women to bring them out of the isolation that is a part of their lives- and to help them generate income from their craft. As an entrepreneur, it is her goal to connect the crafts women of Balochistan to the market, so that they may cash in on their traditional skills.
Deedar began as a social worker and her concern about the women she met and their families grew as she learnt more about them.” I asked the women to send their children to school,” she says, “and they said, how will we eat if the children don’t work? “Some women were doing a bit of embroidery work, but only at the level of the home. Deedar began by buying some of the work and selling it in the city. Sales began to pick up and she went into partnership with Saddam Ali, a BBA student at BUITEM.
The partners brought BUITEM into the picture and the incubator gave them an office space. At BUITEM, they learnt how to manage their inventory and keep their books in order. Six months later, they set up their own office. Once they ventured into online sales, the demand for Baloch crafts soon outstripped supply. Deedar and Saddam then went out into the field, exploring remote corners of the province, and developing a network of producers.
The next step was to set up centers outside the provincial capital of Quetta, in Wadh, Khuzdar and Kalat. The craftswomen began to venture out of their homes, to a nearby work space.
Setting up the centres was no easy task. Mobility is a major issue for women in Balochistan, and at first, Deedar says, they found doors closed on them. With time, they found a level of acceptance. “Women are not even allowed to go and see a doctor,” says Deedar. “For them to come to the centres to pursue their own business was a huge step to take.” But take it they did, and Deedar is proud of the fact that centre heads now come to Quetta for training. The women in Kalat say they are even willing to go to Islamabad on their own to explore training and marketing opportunities.
To stay in touch with her network, Deedar has to travel far and wide, sometimes driving up to 18 hours at a stretch to reach remote villages through the mountains. She had to fight against the norm that dictates women can only work as doctors or teachers. “At first people were shocked,” she says. “Why are you going out of the house to work, they said. ” That is a man’s job. But now they can see how the work benefits so many, and they appreciate it.”
Deedar says her father was all for women’s education. Having broken the rule that says girls beyond a certain age should not go out of the house, he educated his daughters and encouraged them to break other barriers as well. Luckily, Deedar is married to a broadminded man who understands the importance of her work.
DOCH now operates in three districts of Balochistan, and has reached out to 120 women. Deedar says she would like to have a centre in every district of the province, to offer employment opportunities. “Finances are a major challenge,” she says. “Whether its personal loans or institutions, people don’t trust women and doubt their ability to pay back.”
She started the business with her own savings and has built up outlying centres with community support. DOCH is now looking to tap the international market, and is marketing Baloch handicrafts through social media.
Through Balochistan University of Information Technology, Engineering and Management Sciences (BUITEM), Deedar became a part of Karandaaz Women Entrepreneurship Challenge (WEC) in 2017. Karandaaz promotes access to finance for small businesses, to help generate broad based employment in Pakistan. Improving economic participation of women is addressed as a priority area for the organization and its sponsors, the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. WEC aims to support women-led businesses by providing business development support as well as risk capital and grants so the enterprises can grow. In the first WEC round, Karandaaz partnered with three business incubators for the capacity building of women entrepreneurs. They are LUMS in Lahore, BUITEM in Quetta and Invest2 Innovate (i2i). Businesses that successfully graduated from the incubation programmess become eligible to receive funding from Karandaaz.Karandaaz funding will help DOCH to implement its growth plans, as money becomes available to upgrade materials and equipment.
“I would encourage other women to set up in business as well,” says Deedar. “Jobs are scarce, this way you can open up opportunities for others.” She understands that this may prove to be an uphill task. “You should not be afraid of challenges,” she asserts. “Challenges are there to be faced, sooner or later you will achieve your goal.”Her goal was to help women become self-sufficient, and she is on the way to achieving it. There were women whose families did not have enough to eat, who were so poor that they would have to reach out for financial support. “These women don’t ask for money now,” says Deedar. “They ask for work- and that’s a step forward.”