Sheikha Fatima's initiative gives Afghans hope
DUBAI // An initiative in the UAE is not only providing nearly 3,000 Afghan civilians with work, but giving them access to a range of social services too.
Sheikha Fatima bint Mohammed, the daughter of Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, launched the Fatima bint Mohammed Initiative (FBMI) in June, in partnership with Tanweer Investments, an Afghanistan firm.
The project is believed to be the first major foray into the humanitarian field for Sheikha Fatima, who is a university student.
The FBMI set up the UAE Carpet Centre for Afghanistan, which started producing traditional Afghan carpets in July, says Dawood Jabarkhyl, the chairman of Tanweer Investments, who oversees the project.
Staff employed by the centre receive a daily wage, free health care, and access to loans and vocational training. As a condition of their employment, employees must commit to sending their children - boys and girls - aged 14 and younger to school.
"The FBMI is unique because of its social commitment to and employment of women, as well as in providing heath, education and social support," says Mr Jabarkhyl, who is based in Kabul.
The initiative employs 2,700 Afghans, 70 per cent of them women. While the project is aimed at creating sustainable employment opportunities for Afghan civilians, there is an emphasis on female employment.
According to the UN, only about 38 per cent of Afghan women are economically active. Security concerns and conservative beliefs continue to prevent some women from venturing outside their homes to seek employment.
According to Mr Jabarkhyl, about 35 per cent of the female staff are widows - including war widows - supporting their families. There are about 50,000 war widows in Kabul alone who support an average of six dependents, according to Unifem, the UN women's agency.
The FBMI runs two production centres - in the capital Kabul and in Jalalabad, a city in the east of the country. Mr Jabarkhyl says that when the families of the staff are taken into account, the project is impacting the lives of more than 20,000 people.
Mr Jabarkhyl was in Dubai on Tuesday to attend the Afghanistan International Investment Conference where Dr Anwar Gargash, the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, highlighted the UAE's role in promoting development in the country.
In addition to tens of millions invested in infrastructure projects and large-scale humanitarian aid initiatives, Dr Gargash also spoke of the need to promote smaller, grassroots community development projects like FBMI.
Mr Jabarkhyl believes one of the only ways to secure his war-torn country in the long-term is to invest in job creation and provide opportunities.
"The sustainability and continuation [of projects such as this] is important and can only grow and grow," he says.
Those employed through the scheme are given vocational training, to enhance their carpet-making skills, as well as to improve other skills, including literacy.
Employees are also provided with free health care by FBMI, which runs its own clinic and even has its own ambulance.
Workers are paid between US$2-$5 (Dh7-Dh11) a day, depending on their skill level. With child labour also a problem in the country, Mr Jabarkhyl stressed that those employed through the FBMI project are aged between 17 and 65.
"This is a model project and we are very hopeful it will continue into other areas such as agriculture," he says.
"We do not believe in just handouts and charity. There is a lot of corruption in the government, so we wanted to target directly the women to provide jobs."
The FBMI project deals with everything from sourcing Afghan wool, through to spinning and dyeing the yarn, which is then delivered to the weavers, some of whom work from their homes. The project has also provided the looms and equipment that the employees use to create the carpets.
So far, 300 carpets have been made and production is increasing. The carpets, which Mr Jabarkhyl says are made with natural vegetable dyes and produced according to fair trade principles, will soon be available in the UAE.
"I think there is a feel-good factor about this work," Mr Jabarkhyl says. "You want to help the women and children who have suffered after 30 years of war.
"I thank Sheikha Fatima and her step to partner with us. The benefits are coming directly to the women and children."