07/02/2015, 00.00
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Lahore: Christian NGO helping Gypsy women entrepreneurs

by Kamran Chaudhry
The AIDS Awareness Society announces an empowerment programme for Gypsy women. It will involve at least 500 craftswomen and artisans, enabling them to improve their skills and marketing capabilities. Supporters also set up a centre for the display and sale of their products.

Lahore (AsiaNews) – The AIDS Awareness Society (AAS) announced a new project yesterday called ‘Socio Economic Empowerment of Gypsy Women’ to promote homeless women entrepreneurs in Lahore.

The Christian NGO plays an important role in supporting vulnerable and disadvantaged groups. its director, Hector Nihal, said that the initiative would allow 500 craftswomen and artisans to improve their skills and trades according to market demands.

"This is the first time an organisation is working for the capacity building of this scattered segment of the society,” he explained. “We shall add value to their products and find markets to launch their own brand called ‘gypsy’.”

USAID and Aurat (Women) Foundation also supports the ‘Gypsy Women Trade and Communication Centre’” in Punjab capital as a sales point for products like hand fans, straw baskets, rugs, stitched clothes, decoration pieces and toys.

Commonly known as Khana Badosh or Pakhi Was, Pakistan’s Gypsy communities live in makeshift tents and camps. According to a study released last month by AAS, in Lahore alone they are spread out in 250 different locations of 20 up to 800 people.

More than ten million Gypsies live in the country, at least half a million in the capital of Punjab, and are often victims of prejudice, hostility and exploitation.

They have lived this way, peacefully, for centuries in Pakistan, but urban expansion and increasing intolerance is threatening their way of life and further marginalising them as they struggle to integrate. Many once nomadic tribes are forced to settle down.

Most Gypsies are not recognised as citizens. They have no national identity cards, they cannot vote, and their calls for equal treatment and rights protection are met with suspicion.

Speaking to AsiaNews, Dr Noor ul Zaman, a research consultant, said that he interviewed 450 ethnic Gypsies and found that almost all of them were illiterate.

Bear and snake shows were their common trades in the past but now such roadside events have lost public interest.

Today Gypsies survive working as domestic workers, beggars and singers-dancers; the latter profession is viewed immoral in the Islamic country.

Child marriages are common and 69 per cent earn less than 10,000 rupees (US$ 100).

Naghma Niamat, one of the participants from the Gypsy community, took her position at the display table. This was the first time someone from outside her family took a look at her handmade articles.

"Organisers told me they would be selling my rugs for 5,000 rupees each,” she said. “That is the amount my husband, a labourer, earns each month.”

Married at the age of 14 and mother of three children, she has lived for over 20 years without a fixed abode, before the family acquired a small plot of land.

“I just want my children educated in good schools,” she said, “and I hope my dream will be realised now.”

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