Monday, March 5, 2007

AfghanMark enables rug buyers to help Afghan women

AfghanMark enables rug buyers to help Afghan women
By Stevenson SwansonTribune national correspondentPublished February 18, 2007
NEW YORK -- The beauty of Afghan carpets, with their intricate patterns and vibrant colors, belies the ugly conditions under which many of them are made.The women who weave the rugs in Afghanistan are usually paid less than $1 a day. Many sit or stand hunched over a dimly lit loom, straining their eyes and their backs. Children as young as 12 may labor next to them.

AfghanMark is aimed at reducing those hardships.A new certification program run by the Afghan Women's Business Federation, AfghanMark is intended to guarantee higher wages and better working conditions for the weavers who work for the eight carpet companies or consortiums that have agreed to abide by the labor standards set by the federation.Carpets produced by those manufacturers will carry an AfghanMark label, showing a woman whose head is wrapped in a traditional scarf, and bearing the words, "Made by Afghan Women.""We feel this is a win-win situation for everyone," said business federation spokeswoman Halima Kazem at a press conference here last week announcing the certification system. "Through their purchase options, American consumers have the opportunity to improve the lives of Afghan women."The women's business federation was set up after U.S.-led forces ousted the Taliban regime in 2001, following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Funded by the U.S. government's Agency for International Development, the federation seeks to help women become more involved in the Afghan economy, which is struggling to recover from nearly a quarter-century of war and brutal repression under the Taliban.The country's carpet industry is a logical focus for the federation. Carpets traditionally have been made by female weavers, and they are one of Afghanistan's best-known legal exports -- as opposed to opium, its biggest cash crop.Afghan folklore credits the invention of the hand-knotting method of making carpets some 3,500 years ago to a woman named Khali, whose name lives on in the Afghan word for carpet, kaleen.The AfghanMark program represents roughly 27,000 carpet weavers, or about 18 percent of the country's estimated 150,000 weavers. Through the program, manufacturers hope to differentiate themselves from the pack; many of these businesses have women managers or owners who are committed to improving the lot of Afghan women."It's growing," Kazem said after the press conference at the Rubin Museum of Art, which specializes in the art of the Himalayas and adjoining regions. "We hope every carpet company joins us."The AfghanMark program requires manufacturers to pay weavers 50 percent more than the current wage, or about $1.50 a day, and to give a weaver a 10 percent commission on the sale of a carpet she wove.Also, the payments must be made in cash. Weavers are sometimes paid with food, Kazem noted.To qualify for certification, companies must agree to use vertical looms instead of horizontal floor looms, which increase back and eye strain.Companies in the program are subject to random inspections, and if children are found working on the looms, inspectors will stop the work and refer the children and their parents to organizations that provide schooling for working children.Likewise, if inspectors determine that a weaver needs medical care, they will send her to a health clinic.After two violations of the AfghanMark standards, a company will be tossed out of the program, Kazem said.During their visit to America to launch AfghanMark, Kazem and other representatives of the certification program planned to meet with carpet wholesalers to discuss import deals that would bring AfghanMark carpets to this country.Kazem sees the "Made by Afghan Women" labeling effort as an important step in reviving the country's once-thriving carpet industry.In the 1970s, the carpet trade pumped about $40 million into Afghanistan's economy, but after the 1979 Soviet invasion and the war that followed, the industry collapsed. Many weavers fled to Iran and Pakistan.Latifa Abasy was one of those refugee weavers. While in Pakistan, she studied English and worked in an Afghan carpet gallery. Now, she's in charge of trade development for the women's business federation, which estimates that the Afghan carpet industry could grow from a low of $2.5 million in 2002 to $18 million-plus in 2009.Abasy hopes to increase the number of Afghan carpets that are shipped through Dubai. Now, most are shipped through Pakistan, where they are labeled "Made in Pakistan" before being sent to America."To develop a brand name for Afghan carpets, that's the goal that we have to reach," she said.
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