Peshawar - Housewife Shahida Jabeen was devastated when she heard the news that she could no longer take sewing and embroidery classes at the local training centre in her hometown in South Waziristan in north-west Pakistan.
"It was like a bombshell when I was told that the skill development centre had been closed," Jabeen told IPS over the phone.
Like Jabeen, Wajiha Begum lamented the closure of her training centre. "My mother trained in the centre and she is now very good at embroidery. I wanted to fill my mother’s shoes but militancy has snatched from us the opportunity to learn skills. First they destroyed schools and now the skill development," Begum said.
Jabeen and Begum were among the thousands of women from the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA), the autonomous region sitting on Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, who were supposed to receive livelihood training at skill development centres.
"We have planned to train at least 30,000 women over a period of five years, but soaring militancy has dealt a serious blow to our plans," Anwar Shah, in charge of the Skill Development Programme, told IPS.
An endless wave of terrorism that has swept across this South Asian country has dealt a severe blow to the government programme to provide skills to the local women in FATA since 2001. The idea behind the centres was to impart skills to the mostly illiterate women so they could gain financial benefits and earn livelihoods for their families.
In order to help promote women in the underdeveloped FATA, the government allotted 1.8 million dollars to set up vocational training centres in all seven tribal agencies.
It was smooth sailing for years and tribal women were coming in droves to register, till around 2004, Shah said. "The problem started in 2005 when militants started blowing up schools. In the process, they also destroyed 31 skill development centres for women, leaving hundreds of women idle," he said.
Each of the 70 centres used to enrol 20 students for six months. Two batches were supposed to undergo training every year.
A separate directorate was established to oversee the performance of skill centres in tribal areas and put in place a mechanism to register more women. The purpose of opening these centres was to encourage women in the tribal area to set up their own enterprises and earn livelihoods through self-employment.
Tailoring, knitting, hand embroidery, machine embroidery along with home-need based activities like cooking, hygiene, sanitation, simple medication and childcare were introduced at these centres.
The government plan didn’t see the full light of day, however, as the Taliban began hitting the centres, dealing a major blow to women.
"Why are the militants blowing up schools and women skill centres? We were getting training to earn some money for our cash-strapped families," said Gul Nasreen, 21, a resident of North Waziristan Agency where all 13 centres were closed down due to threats by militants. The adjacent South Waziristan Agency is no exception: all 13 centres have been dynamited.
"In some of the centres where a few rooms have survived attacks, the robbers have taken away machines, furniture and other equipment," said a report prepared by the FATA Secretariat in Peshawar.
Gul Nasreen said that it was in 2007 when the militants destroyed a centre where she had taken a three-month training, and was supposed to go on to a longer course.
"Had I got the full training with certificate I would have gotten a job in any NGO (non-government organisation)," she told IPS. She said that about 36 women in her neighbourhood were earning good money after having completed full training at the centre.
The Fata secretariat is trying to reactivate the destroyed centres with the help of the local population.
"We are deeply concerned over the destruction of such centres because the tribal women were taking a keen interest in learning these skills and mostly illiterate women were enrolling," said Jaffar Shah, an official at the FATA secretariat. He said the success of the project could be gauged by the fact that some 8,000 women had been trained at the centres so far.
The women in the tribal area want to learn these skills, but they can’t work in a hostile environment, Shah said. The unstable law and order situation in the tribal area led to the closure of the centres, since neither local women nor Peshawar officials could come, due to the insecurity, he added.
The FATA has been host to thousands of militants since U.S.-led forces kicked out the Taliban government in Kabul towards the end of 2001. The Taliban sneaked into FATA through the 2,400-km porous Pakistan-Afghanistan border and took sanctuary there. Before long, they began targeting government installations, such as schools, health facilities and other state-run buildings.
Shah said the government had allocated 900,000 dollars to rebuild and restart the centres and provide training to women. "We are waiting for the law and order situation to improve," he said.
Five more centres were in the pipeline and were to be run through a public-private partnership. He said that some women who had learned skills at the centres had set up their own outlets and successfully continued their business.
"It is good to have training centres here, as 544 women had received training here and are now running good businesses," said Yasmin Begum, who teaches one of the centres in Bajaur tribal agency.