“After my husband retired we suddenly had no income. They were the toughest six months of my life. We hit rock bottom.”Read more
Life for 38-year-old Sawsan from Jordan has not always been easy, she explains: "When I was six years old, my father died. My mother was left with eight children, six boys and two girls. I was one of the youngest and was brought up by my brothers. My mother was busy, she made as much money as possible with her homemade clothing. That was not common at all, because usually the men earn the money here. My mother taught us: Make sure that as a woman, you earn your own income, because you never know where life takes you. My brothers had to, just like the girls, support in everything, we all had our own task. My mother was an example for me, from a young age I watched as she sewed and embroidered, and that's how she taught me."
Sadly, her mother died when Sawsan was 18 years old, but the lessons she had taught have lasted forever. When she was 23, Sawsan married her much older cousin Omar. It was an arranged marriage but Sawsan comments: "I knew him from when I was little and I thought it was fine to marry him". Life was good, they had three children and Omar continued his career in the army.
During this period Sawsan did not work. Jordan has one of the lowest rates in the world of women participation in economic and political life, as women are not expected to work. Women are expected to follow the lead male family member and usually would not work outside the home without his permission. Women’s employment decisions are therefore made by men, not the women themselves.
However, when Omar retired from his job in the army five years ago, life became an immediate struggle. His military pension would take six months to come through so the couple were suddenly faced with zero income to support themselves and their three young children. The family was plunged into poverty and they could barely afford to feed the whole family, let alone send their children to school. Sawsan explains: “After my husband retired we suddenly had no income. They were the toughest six months of my life. We hit rock bottom.” It was then that she started to pick up her old hobby of needlework and sewing to try and earn an income.
Sawsan was hungry to improve herself and signed up to vocational training in a local community centre. This helped her further hone her skills in sewing, embroidery, handicrafts, soap and candle making. She adds: "At the community centre I heard that I could take classes to increase my skills. From then onwards I went to every course! Even if I did not have money for the bus. I wanted to learn as much as possible. And I encouraged the women around me to go to the training sessions as well. I thought that was very important."
At a similar time in 2013, Sawsan also heard about CARE. With agreement from her husband, she joined a Village Savings and Loans Association (VSLA) supported by CARE, which gives groups of people a safe way to save money and access small loans. She took naturally to saving her small income and soon became the leader of the group. Through the VSLA Sawsan learnt new financial and leadership skills and found a way to save up for a small business. With her newfound skills and the sewing skills she had learnt from her mother, Sawsan was confident she could turn her hobby into a viable business.
photo by: Eva van Barneveld
Having completed a number of training courses provided by CARE and others, Sawsan began to develop a handicraft business producing traditional embroidery, soap sculptures and other crafts. The business grew and she was soon receiving large orders, such as producing one hundred scarves. She turned to her friends for help with these big orders, which sparked a real community spirit of solidarity and determination amongst the women.
At this time CARE was developing a programme, funded by H&M Foundation, which would support Jordanian women over a three-year period through grouped business activities. The purpose of these groups was to develop the capacity of the women and empower them to establish their own businesses and income generating projects. Through the project the women would receive financial grants, as well as training in financial management, marketing, networking, pricing, negotiation and more. Sawsan saw this new project as an opportunity to bring together skilled women in her community to establish a sewing workshop.
Sawsan gathered together four other friends who were interested in setting up a joint business and applying for the support. She became the natural leader of the group due to her experience, as well as the fact that her husband was more liberal about allowing her to work outside the house. Sawsan continues: "CARE gave me training in marketing and finance. After that we had to show that we had a good plan for our project, focused on independence, for me and the other women. CARE had confidence in our plan and my knowledge and gave us a grant to be able to buy materials, fabrics and sewing machines, and to rent a space."
As soon as the first tranche of the grant was given, the five women set to work. They found an unused and deserted space in their neighbourhood for rent and began to turn it into a workspace. The women worked night and day, with Omar helping them with the electrics. Sawsan proudly adds: "This was a very shabby house, but we all turned it into this beautiful workshop."
The reaction from the neighbours to this women-run workshop was initially negative. Sawsan explains: "They did not like it! There were men hanging around our workshop, suspicious, a bit hostile. Do you know what we did then? We threw water at them! Well, then they disappeared. And slowly but surely our confidence grew. We had to prove to the community that we were there to work hard and not play.”
The neighbours began to realise that the women did not represent a threat and saw that they were producing high quality products. The neighbours now drop in regularly to offer coffee and cookies and many are bringing in their garments to be mended. The business has only been up and running for a short time but they are already working with big buyers and taking on large orders. Each woman has her specific role within the workshop, whether it’s buttons and collars, repairs, cut and design, final touches or operating the main sewing machine. Sawsan explains the secret to their success: “When I’m confident about the product, I can be more successful. This is what makes our customers return.”
As for her husband, Sawsan explains: “I’m lucky with Omar, without his support I wouldn’t have reached this point. He really encouraged me. Women must have a role and learn to support themselves.” All the family have got involved in supporting the business with her oldest son, Bashar aged 15, making deliveries and marketing the business at school and her 13-year-old daughter Sumaya helping to make some of the handicrafts “just like the old days with my mother at home”. Omar glows with pride for all that she has achieved. The traditional role of men and women has been completely reversed and he now supports the women´s sewing workshop as their administrative assistant, taking orders and helping with the finances. He adds: "I am proud of her, I saw that she was good at it. I love what she does!”
photo by: Eva van Barneveld
Sawsan adds: “People thought that when I went out to work my family would fall apart, but that didn’t happen. Just like when I was a child, I rely on everyone to play their role both with the business and the housework. I want my kids to become the best achievers in the world.” It seems like Sawsan has got the perfect balance.
Together, this strong group of women are changing perceptions in their community of what women are capable of. They have ambitions for the future, including expanding their workshop and making it a training centre to support other women. Sawsan adds: “Just like CARE helped us, we want to help others. I want to motivate other women to go out and work. We can train and guide other women from zero. We will never forget CARE’s assistance, they are the cornerstone of the help we received. They never felt like a formal organization, they felt like they were our sisters.”
This incredibly motivated woman is breaking down cultural and economic barriers in her country and concludes: "If you have a goal in your life, persevere and believe in yourself, you can do everything!"