Kamila Sidiqi is The Dressmaker of Khair Khana
, and her powerful story symbolizes just how much good business can do at truly impossible times. When the Taliban swept through Kabul and took power in September of 1996, they sent women indoors overnight. Without any warning women who had worked as teachers and engineers and university professors vanished from the city's streets and were barred from their offices.
Young women like Kamila who had to support their family and who knew their community was counting upon them turned to the one thing they could: home business. Kamila, a nineteen year old teacher in training, became an entrepreneur, not because she knew the first thing about business, but because she knew she had five brothers and sisters counting upon her for survival. Picking up a needle and thread for the first time and learning how to sew from an older sister who was a master seamstress, she started with one dress she made in her living room. With the help of her younger, barely teenage brother she took that dress to a local market and found a shopkeeper willing to buy the dresses she and her sister produced.
That first sale was the beginning of a journey that turned this would-be teacher into a successful entrepreneur against a backdrop of war, oppression, and poverty. Within months, girls from around the neighborhood came knocking, looking for work for themselves, which would help to support their own families. By the time the business ended, Kamila's living room had become a dress factory! And a place of community where young women could meet and laugh and share jokes and listen to music — all the things that normal teenagers did. Out of want, Kamila created economic opportunity, and out of despair, she created hope. Kamila realized that while she liked the sewing, what she really excelled in was business. She built a network of shopkeepers around Kabul who bought the dresses that she and the women who worked with her made. And she provided a lifeline to women in her neighborhood by providing work when there were no other options.
After the fall of the Taliban, Kamila began working for the global aid organization Mercy Corps. While there, Kamila established a women's center in Kabul that offered literacy and vocational courses. She trained women in microfinance, teaching them how to use small loans to create and sell products. Her goal was to help women help themselves, so that they could support their families when the foreigners left.
As Kamila's work expanded, she began to train other business teachers, and she traveled around Afghanistan leading courses in entrepreneurship. Her trainings went beyond simple lessons about microfinance and focused on ways for Afghans to effectively use loans to create sustainable businesses. She helped men and women learn how to promote and sell their goods by uncovering market openings and customer needs. This type of skills training has been the crucial missing step for traditional economic aid initiatives. Courses like Kamila's are necessary for Afghan entrepreneurs because it enhances their ability to sustain and expand small and medium-size businesses.
Although Kamila has left Mercy Corps to once more start another business, Mercy Corps continues to increase market access for Afghan entrepreneurs. The organization not only trains people on how to access new markets, but it also facilitates this process by providing partnership programs with foreign investors and consumers. Goldman Sachs, too, fills a need by providing women with 40 hours of management training, so that they can better run the businesses they own — and some they hope to start in the future.
Whether during the Taliban years or today, Afghan women have turned to business in order to help their families and become breadwinners during years in which it has been difficult to be on the streets. Having access to markets helps make this possible, and proves once again the power of investing in women.
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