Sustaining women led enterprises in response to the COVID-19 pandemic

Date: Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Author: Sumiran Shrestha 

In 2017, 35-year-old Anita Kumari Chaudhary from Rautahat, Nepal, – attended a vocational training program on tailoring. Little did she know that the course would have been so valuable as she would be sewing masks in 2020 to keep her community safe from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Anita hails from Chandrapur Municipality of Rautahat district, one of the municipalities hit hardest by COVID-19 in Province 2. Over the years, she has built a reputation as a diligent seamstress in her community and as someone who delivers. But with the outbreak of COVID-19 and imposition of a nationwide lockdown on 24 March 2020 Anita’s life took a turn, “Before COVID-19, I used to get a lot of orders from customers. Now, with restrictions on mobility and marriages being postponed, the orders that I had received earlier have been cancelled. My regular income has been affected and I fear an uncertain future.”

Anita Kumari Chaudhary is a well-known seamstress in her community. Photo courtesy of Anita Kumari Chaudhary.

“My journey as a seamstress started in 2017, when I heard about a training program on tailoring. It so happened that my age did not match the target age group for the training and so I was not eligible. I was sad but I persisted with the trainer – I am glad that I did not give up,” recounts Anita. She completed the three-month vocational training on tailoring in 2017 organized by Aasaman Nepal, an implementing partner of UN Women’s programme for “Empowering Adolescent Girls and Young Women through the Provision of Comprehensive Sexuality Education and a Safe Learning Environment in Nepal” funded by Koica. 

In her small village, word travelled fast of Anita’s newly acquired skills which helped her with a steady flow of tailoring orders. Her economic status improved with her monthly earnings reaching anywhere between NPR 10,000-15,000 (USD 85 - USD 125) per month and the subsequent savings of NPR 1000-2000 (USD 10 - USD 19) in the local cooperative. She says, “I became independent. I did not have to depend on my husband for money anymore. I could contribute to my family’s needs.” 

With her newfound confidence, she went on to becoming a trainer by completing a training of trainers’ course on tailoring organized by a private agency. The thrill in her voice is evident when she recalls her tailoring and training business before the lockdown. “What excited me most was when my neighbors visited my house to observe my work with great interest and placed their orders. This helped me with my second source of income by training a few girls on tailoring in the neighborhood.”

Anita sewing masks in response to the COVID-19 pandemic at her house. Photo courtesy of Anita Kumari Chaudhary.

“The case of the economic and personal empowerment of Anita is a representation of what the joint project seeks to achieve for the vulnerable women, who have minimal to no opportunities to enter and compete in the labor market. While income generation is critical, the meaningful outcome for us is the sense of achievement and leadership demonstrated by Anita,” says Priti Shrestha, Programme Officer at UN Women Nepal.

Anita’s ambitions came to a shattering halt with the onset of COVID-19 in Nepal. But all was not lost. Sewing skills that she learnt from UN Women’s training came to use when she was contacted by a local entrepreneur to produce 2,000 face masks for the COVID-19 response. The entrepreneur was Nirmala Thapa, a trainer who also benefitted from capacity building under the Joint Project. Raw materials to produce the masks were provided by Nirmala and within four days, Anita had completed half of the order and earned a total of NRP 5,000 (USD 48 - USD 50). She says, “Had it not been for the three-month vocational training on tailoring under the Joint Project, I would not have become economically empowered. I would not have been economically productive, especially during this period of lockdown during the pandemic.” 

Anita is now training her sister-in-law to sew face masks and is hopeful that once materials can be procured, they will both work to complete the order. She adds, “This is an enhancement to my enterprise and I am grateful to the training for making this happen. I hope that the same opportunity is extended to other women like me.”

“Empowering Adolescent Girls and Young Women through the Provision of Comprehensive Sexuality Education and a Safe Learning Environment in Nepal” is a joint project to increase learning opportunities for out-of-school adolescent girls and young women and vulnerable women directly affected by the armed conflict through an integrated approach to education, gender equality and health. It is a collaborative effort of UNESCO, UNFPA and UN Women funded by KOICA.