Small Machines, Big Ambitions

October 17, 2022
UNDp Yemen Asrar widow story

Asrar widow story Asrar with her kids putting the final touch on the dress she sewed, Abyan

UNDP Yemen / 2022

Sewing machines are the first thing that catches the eye as visitors walk into Asrar and Fatma's work studio. Located in Serar, Abyan governorate, heavy scratches on the sewing machines show years of work and persistence. Asrar, a widowed mother of three children, has been the breadwinner for her family for years. She started learning sewing seven years ago to support herself and her children after Yemen’s conflict erupted in 2015.

"We started from scratch,” she says. “We had nothing but hopeful wishes to be able to support ourselves."

Sitting at her studio for long hours, hypnotized by the whirr of the machine, made the difference between abject poverty and survival. The black and gold machine has provided her with both joy and a steady income to support her children during their time of need. Funded by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the small sewing enterprise liberated Asrar and allowed her to gain independence despite deteriorating conditions. “It was godsent,” she said.

Accompanied by Asrar, her co-worker Fatima, a widow for five years now, has also benefited from the grant. "It is not just a machine; it is something that empowered me to earn for myself and my son.”

Living far away from Yemen’s big cities and towns, Fatima and Asrar serve as role models for other women. They have proven that – despite economic and social challenges – Yemeni women have great potential to start, grow, and operate small businesses that serve their communities. The noise from their machines and the smell of heat on the fabric marked great new beginnings.

Asrar and Fatima both lost their husbands years ago to the conflict. Their situation was similar – they were vulnerable and without the ability to acquire the most basic needs. Neither had the ability to make money and both faced the responsibility of caring for their families. Dominant societal norms in the Serar district normally dictates that women are housewives and they do not work outside the home, but Asrar and Fatima shared the same dream of a decent life for their families. They decided to start a joint sewing project where they benefited from business management technical training and a financial grant that was the starting point toward achieving the dream.

The path forward was not straight nor easy, as the women faced many obstacles. Women in rural Yemen often suffer from lack of basic necessities, such as not having access to transportation, education, and health facilities. But these things did not defer Asrar and Fatima who were able to grow their business quickly as more people began to hear about their services and request their work.

"We design dresses, shirts, and pants that we market in near and far areas. People love our work, and we are becoming popular," Fatima declared!  

Every day these women work diligently next to a large pile of material that make up their day's work assignments. With dedication and passion, Fatima and Asrar work late into the night, pulling stitches and trimming threads. It was not easy for them to operate in a rural area where women face many challenges, most notably access to education and the right to work. Yet they resolved to finding a way to continue. "I will keep up with my work and business because I want to secure an education for my child," Fatima said.

The leadership and fighting spirit that many Yemeni women maintain, enabled Asrar and Fatima to overcome the devastating circumstances of the conflict that has increased the burden on rural women. Despite household difficulties, poor infrastructure, social constraints, limited transport and energy resources, and even stereotypes – rural women like Asrar and Fatima embrace existing opportunities and sometimes create new ones, making significant contributions to their families and communities. 

“In a few years, we dream to expand our business and reach big markets,” Fatima explains. The ambitious women, Fatima and Asrar, dream to grow their business and, no matter what happens, they will keep working hard to fulfill their goals.

Co-funded and supported by the European Union (EU) and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), the Supporting Resilient Livelihoods and Food Security in Yemen Joint Programme (ERRY JP) helps vulnerable communities build alternative livelihood opportunities through an inclusive socio-economic approach that has increased women positive participation in income generation activities like cash for work and enterprise establishment which indeed is a milestone given the stringent social norms and traditions in the targeted areas.