Rural women in Uzbekistan unite to learn business skills and generate livelihoods

Date: 31 May 2012

Dilsora Rakhimova (first on the right) with colleagues and apprentices at an handicrafts exhibition in the town of Karshi, Uzbekistan. Photo Courtesy Dilsora Rakhimova

For Dilsora Rahimova, business training and the support of other women, were all she needed to soar.

After joining a self-help group and applying the training to her traditional embroidery skills, the 43-year-old craftswoman and mother from Uzbekistan's Kashkadarya province slowly built the confidence to submit her work to a few exhibitions. Soon she won the second prize in a national “Handywoman award offered by a local women's group, and a nomination for the prestigious Zulfiya State Award, established by the country's president to encourage business enterprises by women. “The project helped me to identify my perspectives, she recalls of the group. “I took my first steps in business, learned to make decisions, listen to others, and express my opinion.

Like Rahimova, many women living in rural areas have been cultivating their business skills through self-help groups, as part of a project by the Women's Committee of Uzbekistan, supported by UN Women.

First piloted in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the model has helped hundreds of women to start profitable businesses in the region by giving them access to financial support, alongside economic training on issues like money management, business planning and credit systems.

Women in Uzbekistan, as in much of the region, have little access to economic opportunities. Despite efforts to address this by the government, they are underfinanced and under implemented, and gender stereotypes remain strong. Employed women are paid less, with many working in the informal or unskilled non-production sectors. And as social infrastructure shrinks, especially in rural areas, women engaged in unpaid housework are struggling to make ends meet.

The project has improved the service and trainings that women receive, using a network of social and legal support centres run by the Women's Committee. Many of the trainings help the women start and run their self-help groups.

Through the groups women come together to discuss their needs, and ways to address them, whether by working with local government, marketing or buying goods. Many have started internal savings and financial management programmes.

Encouraged by the initiative, in 2010 the Micro-Credit Bank (MCB), with the government of Uzbekistan as a major shareholder, decided to provide $100,000 in micro-credits to the rural women's self-help groups. The project negotiated a 3 per cent annual interest rate - 11 per cent less than the standard rate.

The pilot project now boasts 49 self-help groups across the three pilot areas. Close to 200 women have started business initiatives such as livestock breeding and gold embroidery production; 29 have successfully applied for micro-credits. The women report more respect from their communities, and better living standards for themselves and their families. They say that women from other villages have been eager to learn about the model.

“I used to be ashamed of the interior of my house, but now I am able to fix the interior, says Bahargul Ametova, a group member in the village of Kanlykul, Karakalpakstan. “I bought furniture and am planning to buy new curtains soon, she adds, noting that she also plans to hire a tutor to prepare her daughter for higher education.

For many, like the award-winning Rahimova, their new knowledge and support has meant the start of a brighter future, greater independence, and a new confidence in their ability to earn an income for themselves and their families. Sabohat Davronova, also from Kashkadarya, says that both she and her husband appreciate the results. “I have proven to myself and to others that women also have the right to, and can, participate in decision-making along with men, she says.

Investing time, money and faith in rural women has yielded other rewards too. In November 2011, the Micro-Credit Bank reported a 100 per cent repayment rate by the self-help groups. And with both the Women's Committee and the Bank now committed to replicating the model, the skills of women business leaders from Uzbekistan's rural communities will continue to grow.