For the last five years, 25-year-old Ifra Yousuf and her two sisters stitched garments at their home. As business and demand grew, the trio realised they needed to expand but required a separate manufacturing unit.
Last month, the sisters took a loan and 15 days ago, opened a small garment unit, manufacturing gowns, lehengas and other clothes, in the Chattabal area of the Srinagar city. “Earlier, we used to operate from home only. But, now we have a complete unit and it is just 15 days old. I also approached the bank and they sanctioned me a loan of Rs 8 lakh,” says Ifra, who completed her Class 12 in 2016.
And in the volatile Kashmir Valley, Ifra and her sisters aren’t the only women taking to entrepreneurship. From the far-flung areas of north Kashmir to the violence-hit south, women are opening their own ventures with one simple goal: become self-dependent.
Jammu & Kashmir Entrepreneurship Development Institute (EDI) statistics show that they have promoted 1,013 women entrepreneurs under three schemes until March 31 this year in the Kashmir division. That is almost double the number of women entrepreneurs in 2016 when 571 women benefited from similar schemes.
According to Ifra, the choice of joining and developing the unit with her sisters stemmed from the lack of employment opportunities in Kashmir. “There are hardly any jobs here. My two sisters were doing really well. I thought instead of studying further, it is better to start work in the same unit and become a specialist,” she says.
Like Ifra, Masrat Naz (39), from North Kashmir’s Bandipora district, too, decided to take her childcare business up a notch. “In Bandipora district, the concept of child care centres was new but I decided to go ahead. The idea was to enrol children whose parents are working,” says Naz, who opened the centre after completing her studies in 2013.
Back then, Naz had no prior experience in childcare. And that’s when the J&K EDI training came through.
“The first thing I did was to enrol my children in the same centre. Initially, there were only three children including two of mine. Now thanks to God it has reached 275,” she says, adding that she has managed to upgrade the centre up to Class 3 over the last few years. “Even my daughter studies at the same centre in Class 1.”
Naz accepts there are challenges for women in Kashmir to run a business. “I was aware that it is not going to be easy thing.even today, I have to run it all on my own. I call my husband, but he has a government job and is busy, so ultimately, I do everything on my own.”
According to Obaid Riyaz, EDI’s Human Resources (HR) manager, JKEDI has two separate and fully functional centres for Women Entrepreneurship in Jammu and Srinagar. “In Jammu, the centre was started in 2017, whereas in Kashmir it started February 2018. These centres are staffed mainly by women to create a women-friendly environment,” he says.
Director JKEDI, Tufail Mattoo told The Indian Express that the number of women entrepreneurship centres in the Valley is rising.
“Before starting the Women Entrepreneurship Centres in the twin capitals of the state, the percentage of women facilitated by the Institute was just 16% compared to 84% for men. The numbers have comparably risen and are now touching 24% as on date.by the end of this financial year, we hope to take this figure to 30%,” he says.
In south Kashmir, too, the hotbed of militancy, women have battled stereotypes, social pressures and the daily violence to improve livelihood.
Saba Farhat, from Anantnag district, is one example. In 2016, she started a resort in south Kashmir’s picturesque Daksum. Shortly after opening the resort, slain Hizbul Mujahedeen commander Burhan Wani was killed, leading to an uprising in the Valley.
“After his killing, there were protests in the Valley and everything remained shut. My outlet was also hit and hardly anyone visited our resort,” says Farhat, who is an engineer. If not for the support from her in-laws and a bank loan, Saba says it would have been hard to open the resort.
A few months ago, she came up with the idea of selling suits and crockery to customers, mostly on social media. “It is just the beginning…I hope I will do well in this business because the demand is high,” she says. “The only problem is the recurrent snapping of the Internet in south Kashmir. Due to the frequent shutdowns, I cannot run it properly.”
29-year-old Sania, from Srinagar, has become a specialist in making customised cakes. Operating from her home until now, Sania plans to open a bakery. “Initially, it was difficult, but now I am getting new orders on a daily basis. I am now planning to open a full cakery unit,” she says. With many women coming up with their individual outlets, Sania says the competition has grown.
Experts see Kashmiri women turning to entrepreneurship as a positive change. “It is the need of the hour. We are now seeing women coming forward and opening different units in different places. I am very hopeful that women will carry forward business in Kashmir in future,” says Dr Gazalla Amin, the first woman member of Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industries (KCCI)- the Valley’s old trade body.