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Empowering crafts women to embrace new approaches to design and support poverty alleviation

The AHRC-ESRC funded research project The Value of Culture in Conflict, led by Dr Neelam Raina from Middlesex University, works with local NGO SABAH to support female entrepreneurship in design in the Neelum Valley. The project has enabled women to develop their craft practices to generate sustainable incomes through training, peer-to-peer learning and knowledge exchange with other practitioners. This project provides tailored solutions through inclusive and locally-led approaches to support poverty alleviation.

Women in The Neelum Valley

Women in The Neelum Valley live within a fragile and conflict-affected region due to its geo-political location. This contested border region between India and Pakistan is heavily reliant on subsistence agriculture and handicrafts, the latter is primarily undertaken by female home based workers. The International Labour Organisation reports that the majority (92%) of Pakistan’s female home based workers are classified within the category of “Other crafts and related trades”. This project places importance on new approaches that understand and value culture as essential to peace building, socio-economic reconstruction and fostering resilience and agency in communities affected by violence, conflict and fragility.

To date, a total of 32 women have received training in design and business skills which has included head trainers from villages in Neelum Valley (Kashmir) and craftswomen from Balochistan as well as the NGO management teams who have then cascaded learning to other women within the community. Building capacity with local NGOs has also widened the reach and ensured the sustainability of the benefits of the research project.

Women in The Neelum Valley

We wanted to see how women in conflict areas use their cultural and coded, tacit knowledge to respond to the conflict in which they live and to support their socio-economic empowerment…Men respond differently to conflict than women; the bulk of responsibility of peace-building is often placed on the women of the region, exacerbating previously existing inequalities”

Dr Neelam Raina quoted in Dawn, 19 October 2017

Within design systems in most developing economies, tradition has tended to outweigh innovation, and experimentation is viewed by home based workers as wasteful and risky. However, the returns from innovation can be significant for livelihoods and confidence. This project has empowered women to approach design elements of colour, line, shape, space and form creating a safe space to experiment, explore and apply alternative design methods to widen their repertoire of products. Craftswomen now know how to apply traditional embroidery skills used for embellishing womenswear on new and varied products such as bags and scarves - this is what they had indicated as a target and ambition from their training. The pieces that resulted from the project were showcased at the National College of Arts Rawalpindi, inaugurated by Pakistan’s Federal Minister of Education in October 2017. This exhibition is also going to be installed at the British Academy in London in May 2018.

This multi-disciplinary cross council (AHRC-ESRC) project funded through the Partnership for Conflict, Crime and Security Research (PaCCS), brings together gender studies, research on conflict transformation and peace building with design, offering an alternative approach to building sustainable livelihoods in areas affected by conflict. Dr Raina’s research and activities have generated interest from a number of NGOs and institutions whose work addresses violent extremism through economic empowerment both within the region and further afield. In one example, partner organisations are looking to partner with Dr Raina to deliver similar training to women in Iraq as well as Afghanistan.

View the abstract on the Gateways to Research website.