“Would the four eggs be worth the price of the pink lipstick”, I tried to do some calculation and decided that it was a good exchange and gave away the lipstick. It was my usual practice to sometimes accept kind also in exchange for small items I sold to the women in the village” said Gul Vara telling the amazing story of how she became a business woman, a trader and an entrepreneur. “I never said no to any woman and that was the secret for my success”.

Gul Vera is forty year old woman I met in a remote village in Nowshera during the project impact analysis of the Women Economic Empowerment and Market Development Project by the remarkable Sarhad Rural Development Programme and was blown away with her remarkable story.

She was married at the age of fifteen years to a much older man she did not know but then, in her part of the world it was quite the norm. She did not object to the marriage but one thing she did not sign up for was that her husband turned out to be unsound of mind. Although she was young but with the passage of time she understood that he was actually suffering from mental illness. He worked as a daily wage labourer in the village but soon after the marriage he gave up work all together.

Gul Vara had no idea how to manage life on her own. In the years after her marriage she kept having children in quick succession. As a young, uneducated girl in an already complex situation she had no idea of how to manage her pregnancies or seek help for any family planning. She was clueless, isolated, in poor health and most of all scared about her fate. Her husband also regularly beat her up in a fit of rage, or under influence of drugs that he sometimes took but she did not know how to cope with it other than just endure it.

The situation was undoubtedly grim and there were few options available. All she could do was to work as domestic help, make quilts in the winter and work as a help during weddings in the village. But that barely paid enough to make ends meet and she was living in utter poverty. She lived in a mud house with thatched roof which provided little relief against the elements but with a sick husband, a growing number of children and little money she had no other place to go.

“I was sure that I would die in poverty and that there was no way out of a seemingly impossible situation”, she said reminiscing “I was looked down upon by my own family and I felt humiliated but I didn’t even have the heart to leave my husband. I felt sorry for him as there was no one to look after him and without me he was sure to die”, she said.

Then one day she heard someone mention to her that there were some people in the village who had come from Peshawar and were offering loans for the women who wanted to work. Gul Vara decided to find out what that was all about. She saw and met the team of SRSP who had set up a small village committee of some people in the house of a village elder.

Sarhad Rural Development Programme had started a small grant and credit project with the funding from AusAid and Gul Vara’s village happened to be one of the selected villages for it.

The predominant patriarchal structure of rural Khyber Pakhtunkhwa society creates a polarization which is glaringly obvious. The women are totally dependent on the male members of the household; not just in terms of finances but also regarding the decisions of their everyday life. They are not allowed to decide for themselves about even simple things like going out for shopping or to make social calls or important decisions regarding marriage or family planning. All decisions regarding the family and women are made by the men and so to start a programme for the income generation of women was almost like an invasion in the traditional system of the area.

By all standards this project was a real challenge for SRSP as they wanted to reach out to the women like Gul Vara who were caught in the vicious circle of poverty. Every effort had to be made to ensure that the sensibilities of the people of the village were not hurt and that they would cooperate with the project team understanding the nature and need of the project. A huge effort was needed in terms of social mobilization to convince the men in the village regarding entrepreneurship the women.

The mobility of women in that society is actually unsafe, in case any stranger would dare try to interact or talk to any women on her way, in which case it can result in a major conflict.

The project was designed around women and it included grants, loans and skill development training for the participating women to enable them to start home based businesses which would enable them to generate some income.

Gul Vara was among the first women selected for the loan and grant from a rolling fund. She received twenty thousand rupees as a loan for starting a small business. She decided to use the money to buy a small calf to rear and decided to purchase small household items from the market at wholesale rate and sell door to door in her village. It is kind of ironic but because of the limited mobility of women in the village her business started to flourish. She took orders, accepted cash, kind and even instalments to reach out to as many houses as she could. In less than a year Gul Vara also paid back her loan in full and was eligible for another loan.

Today after eight years of successful entrepreneurship she has taken the loan seven times and she is now the proud owner of a new house that she has built herself, she owns livestock and her the days of poverty are long past. “My children eat well, my husband is much better now and I can never thank SRSP enough for coming to me with this gift. Without this project I would have perished in the same kutcha mud house”.

When I asked her as to what was the real reason of her success she replied that it was the women coming together. The women became each other’s strength in a way which they had not even imagined possible. “We met regularly, shared our progress, got guidance from the project staff who were there for all kinds of troubleshooting, advice and support” she said, “that made all the difference”.

SRSP and its project team made the impossible possible in a place where it was unimaginable to allow women to become entrepreneurs. The project was based on a simple design of a village bank where a village committee would select the eligible women and they would make sure to collect the interest free instalments every month. The sense of pride in running a small village bank and providing opportunities to their community was the incentive that made the project a success.

In just one district other than Gul Vara there are two hundred more women who have benefited and received the loan more than twice and earning a living.

The most remarkable impact of the project is actually their growing confidence, sense of achievement and pride they take in being the earning members of their families.