Weaving hope and financial independence: Fatima's path to empowerment

May 12, 2024
©UNDP Syria – Fidaa Shams Aldeen

“I have been crocheting since I was in the second grade. I learned it from my grandmother. I remember during family gatherings, all the women were always working on a piece, and they exchanged ideas and techniques meanwhile drinking coffee and gossiping at the same time. It taught me from a very young age to always strive to be productive,” said Fatima Babat, a 58-year-old woman of Circassian ethnic origin from Quneitra in southern Syria.

Over 12 years of protracted crisis has left close to 90 percent of the population in Syria living below the poverty line. The Syrian economy is subject to repeated shocks, increasing humanitarian needs reaching an all-time high and worryingly limited livelihood opportunities. According to the UN, about 70 percent of the total population are in need of humanitarian assistance this year. Unfortunately, women bear a disproportionate burden of hardships.

Fatima was operating from her home and selling her products to a wide network of neighbours, friends, and family, in addition to a few retailers and shop owners in Damascus and participated in many bazars and markets. “During the crisis, I had to flee my home several times for months at a time. Every time we would come back to an empty and looted home. My husband passed away a few years ago, last time we fled our home together and I came back alone to an empty home. Empty in every sense of the word. I had an electric knitting machine that was looted the first time we fled,” said Fatima as she tried to hide her tears.

The participation of women in the labour force in Syria remains alarmingly low, with only 17 percent engaged in formal employment compared to 83 percent of men[1]. This stark disparity is fuelled by a lack of economic opportunities and limited access to financing, perpetuating a distressing cycle of poverty and gender inequality. Furthermore, women encounter significant societal and cultural barriers that restrict their pursuit of entrepreneurial ventures. 

“I got married later in life when I was 36 and never had children. I honestly wish I never married because although my late husband, God bless his soul was an amazing man, I had to deal with difficult in laws who were very critical of my work outside the house,” said Fatima.

Fatima was studying for her ninth-grade exams when she had an accident with a kerosene burner and was hospitalised with severe burns. “I had to undergo several operations. This is the beautified version of me after many plastic surgeries” she said smiling sarcastically referring to her scars. “Because of that I failed my exams that year and I had to settle for technical school where I graduated as an Assistant Electrical Engineer. Although it was not my first choice, I made the best of it and till today I am still using my knowledge to fix home appliances by myself. At some point I even used the copper wiring from motors that I could not fix to make some jewellery and small artifacts,” she added.

After graduation, Fatima started teaching first grade in an elementary school. She also taught literacy classes after school. “My students ranged from 12- to 50-year-old women who were eager to learn. I still remember a lot of my students from that time. I saw some potential in some of them and I volunteered to stay for an extra hour after class to teach them how to crochet,” said Fatima.

Fatima was selected from more than 700 women who applied to be part of the Path to Empowerment project. With generous funding from the Government of Japan, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) focused on enhancing economic empowerment through improved access to financial resources and markets and securing decent working conditions for women entrepreneurs in Qunitera. Fatima underwent entrepreneurship skills training with 70 other selected women that enabled them to develop their business plans. After which, Fatima submitted her business plan and estimated budget, and she was selected with 50 other women to receive seed funding for their projects.

©UNDP Syria – Fidaa Shams Aldeen

“I learned how to properly calculate cost and profit margins for different products to fit different budgets so I can reach as many customers as possible,” said Fatima. “I always make sure I have something for everyone, no matter what their budget is,” she added.

“One time I was riding the bus when I recognised one of my pieces worn by a young lady. I asked her where she got it from and for how much and that is how I discovered that the retailer who was selling my products for a 10 percent fee was scamming me and selling them for double what we agreed on” exclaimed Fatima recalling what she learned from the training. Now I have the knowledge I need not fall for that again,” she added.

Fatima is currently in the process of renting a small shop where she will sell her products and she will also use the space to train girls who are interested in learning crochet. “Unfortunately, girls in my area drop out of school at a very young age and rarely do they learn a craft. They end up either married or doing small jobs cleaning houses and visiting neighbours and gossiping the rest of their time,” she said.

“My advice to young girls, is not just passively stay still, make the best of your time and if you love doing something, follow your passion and do not listen to the critical voices around you. Move, be productive, make your own path to financial independence. There is nothing more powerful than a financially independent woman,” concluded Fatima.

[1]  World Bank (2022): https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SL.TLF.CACT.FE.ZS?locations=SY

By Asma’ Nashawati, Communications Associate, UNDP Syria

" Move, be productive, make your own path to financial independence. There is nothing more powerful than a financially independent woman" Fatima Babat