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INDIA: One Woman’s Entrepreneurial Venture Now Employs Thousands

Athar Parvaiz

SRINAGAR, May 13 2010 (IPS) - Shameema Wani, 40, never imagined a simple venture, begun from scratch, would grow into the 2,000-strong business enterprise, employing mainly women, that it is today in this capital city of India’s disputed Jammu and Kashmir state.

When her husband had an accident in1990, leaving him incapacitated for gainful work, Wani figured it was time to put her college education to good use by setting up a small business.

Misery pushed her, says the mother of two, aged 18 and 15, to go into a male-dominated commercial arena if only to support her family.

Using what little was left of her family’s resources after her husband’s costly treatment, she bought a sack of ‘pashmina’ from Leh – capital of the Himalayan kingdom in Ladakh in Jammu and Kashmir – to make shawls.

Pashmina – an indigenous word for ‘cashmere’ – is a type of fine cashmere wool used to make the world-famous shawls known by the same name. The wool specifically comes from ‘changthangi’ or ‘pashmina’ goat, which is indigenous to the Himalayas in Ladakh region in the disputed state.

Almost two decades on, the college dropout’s initial foray into business has grown into a major enterprise that provides livelihood for thousands of women in her village and elsewhere in the Indian state.

Rafiqa Akhtar, 27, who has been hired by Wani, prides herself on being able to earn without neglecting her duties at home as a mother of two. “It is a good economic opportunity. We do our household chores and still manage to earn,” she says of her job.

Nazir Ahmad Wani is only too proud of what his wife has achieved. “If not for her courage and entrepreneurial spirit, our only option would have been to beg,” he says. He is just as proud of the opportunities that her wife’s business venture has afforded to other women.

Wani says making pashminas is a backbreaking job. Still, she relishes all the hard work it entails and feels grateful to her father, who made sure she went to college.

Unlike most women in her village in Chursu, Wani says her father sent her to college even if it meant she had to endure the taunts of her neighbours and kin, who considered female education un-Islamic. According to them, says Wani, women should either study at home or avoid co-educational institutions, assuming they must go into college at all.

She regrets, though, not being able to finish college because she married when she was only 19 years old. Yet, she says she learned enough to be able to have the confidence to pursue the path to entrepreneurship.

When her business had grown big enough, she thought it was time she started hiring other women in her village to work for her. “I felt this job was quite suited to women, who could still do their chores at home while earning part-time,” she reasons.

Soon even women from outside her village started coming to her, because they needed work. Now they are earning 2,500 to 4,000 Indian rupees (around 55 to 89 U.S. dollars) a month from making shawls.

Demonstrations and mass rallies, staged by the unemployed, most of them youth, to protest the dire lack of job opportunities, are not uncommon in the Indian-administered Kashmir.

“As of December 2009, we have had over 5.7 lac (or well over half a million) unemployed educated youth in Jammu and Kashmir,” says Kashmir’s labour and employment minister Abdul Gani Malik.

Wani has never looked back even on the most difficult days of her life after her husband’s accident. “I make good money out of this business and I am happy that I can also give other women an opportunity to earn on their own,” she says.

Not that trying times are over. Seeing how pashmina manufacturers and traders are exploiting the laborers, she wants to put up her own shawl factory. This would be in addition to the Wani Pashmina Katayee Centre that she set up in 1993. Here her workers bring their processed pashminas.

Traders, she says, pay her only one Indian rupee (less than 1 U.S. cent) per pashmina knot instead of the more realistic price of 20 Indian rupees (about half a U.S. dollar). “That is too miniscule,” she says. “This prompted me to think of putting up my own shawl-manufacturing unit.”

Not everyone was pleased with her daring ventures. “They said that it was not a woman’s job to set up a shop in the market,” But I remained unfazed and didn’t listen to what they said,” Shameema told IPS. Today, the Wani Pashmina Katayee Centre is flourishing.

Not one to sit on her laurels, Wani has also begun to trade in other commodities, namely, Kashmiri almonds and cosmetic products. Women find it more convenient to buy items for their special needs at Wani’s outlet than elsewhere in the male-dominated market, she says.

By dint of hard work and firm determination, Wani has achieved her dream. She sees no reason why other women cannot do the same and turn into successful entrepreneurs.

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