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Gems of Hope

The nonprofit Future Brilliance is developing a jewelry-making industry in Afghanistan to promote workforce development for stability in a country that is isolationist by nature and that has been beleaguered by war.

By Amber Michelle

Hammasa Kohistani, Afghanistan's only female model — and former Miss England — models Aayenda jewelry.
Afghanistan is rich in gems, yet one of the poorest countries in the world. The nongovernmental organization (NGO) Future Brilliance has set up a lapidary training project for Afghan artisans to develop jewelry created by local craftspersons using stones that are native to the country. The result is the Aayenda collection, comprised of jewelry by Afghan designers and artists in collaboration with U.K. designer Paul Spurgeon and U.S. designers Anna Ruth Henriques and Annie Fensterstock.
   Launched in 2012, the nonprofit NGO’s mission is explained by its founder and chief executive officer (CEO) Sophia Swire as “enterprise and workforce development for stability, particularly to get Afghan women into the workforce.” This is not an easy task since traditionally women in Afghanistan have virtually no rights and usually do not work outside the home. But, says Swire, “This is a good skill for Afghan women as they can do the work from home.” She notes that there are some 300 war widows from the Badakshan Province in the northeastern region of Afghanistan who are carving lapis beads for the project, two female designers from Ishkashim on the border with Tajikistan and one from Mazar-e-Sharif and another seven women manufacturing jewelry in the capital city of Kabul. Eleven women attended a six-month training course in Jaipur, India, delivered by Future Brilliance at the Indian Institute of Gems & Jewellery, studying the craft, design and business of jewelry making. This is a big accomplishment in a war-torn country that is, according to a June 2011 global survey by the U.K. newspaper, The Guardian, “the world’s most dangerous country in which to be born a woman.”
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  Starting an industry in a country plagued by conflict is a Herculean task, but the bigger challenge is being able to bring women into the picture as well. “Finding women whose families will let them be involved is difficult,” says Swire.
   Roya Hayat, gender manager for Future Brilliance and a protégé of Swire’s, who sponsored Hayat’s education, explains some of the reasons why Afghanistan is such a tough place for women. “Religion has always played a very important role in the daily life and social customs of Afghanistan. Historically, Afghan women have always been given a subordinate status. Their position in the family is shaped by many factors and there are strong cultural and historical roots of gender discrimination. Also, the long years of war and violence, an unstable political and economic situation and the Taliban takeover in 1996 have had a particularly severe impact on women and their position even took a retrogressive turn.”

Radiance pendant, lapis and turquoise necklace, gold-plated base metal, in development.
   Hayat, who was born in Kabul but fled to Pakistan as a refugee when she was nine years old, sees the situation beginning to turn around for the better, since the current regime came into power in 2001. “The political and cultural position of Afghan women has shown some improvement,” she says. “The wearing of a veil became voluntary, and women have found employment in offices, shops and international NGOs; some women are also receiving a university education. The elderly and widowed women are also benefiting from projects designed by local and international NGOs. The ban enforced by the Taliban on most forms of entertainment has been lifted, and the social atmosphere has become more relaxed. Though facilities are minimal, schools have been reopened —including those for girls — and women are once again entering the workforce.”

WOMEN IN AFGHANISTAN
  • 13 percent of females over 15 years old are literate, compared to 43 percent of males. Country Profile: Afghanistan, Learning for Life: UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning.
  • 85 percent of women have no formal education. 
  • There are two girls for every three boys enrolled in school. “State of the World’s Mothers 2012,” Save the Children, May 2012, page 50.
  • The average Afghan woman won’t live to see her 50th birthday. “State of the World’s Mothers 2012,” Save the Children, May 2012, page 49.
  • Targeted attacks on civilian women and children as they go to work or school increased by 20 percent in 2012 compared to 2011. United Nations News Centre.
  • One woman in 11 dies in pregnancy or childbirth in Afghanistan. “State of the World’s Mothers 2012,” Save the Children, May 2012, page 49.
  • 87 percent of women in Afghanistan experience domestic violence. “Living With Violence: A National Report on Domestic Abuse in Afghanistan,” Global Rights. March 2008, page 1.



Khala Zada puts the finishing touches to her collection for Aayenda.

Vision
  Despite a seemingly impossible situation, Swire sees hope. This is not her first venture in the area. Swire left her banking job in London to start a school on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan 25 years ago and “fell in love with the region.” She is also widely credited with bringing the now ubiquitous pashmina shawl to the Western world after seeing it worn by movie stars in Pakistan. She tracked down the source in Nepal and the rest is fashion history.
   For three years, Swire served as Senior Advisor on Gemstones to the Afghan Ministry of Mines, a job that entailed inspecting gem mines to ensure their safety for workers, finding ways to bring more women into the value chain and generally to modernize the industry. Noting that some of the world’s oldest gem mines are in the northern regions of Afghanistan, and that fine jewelry had been fabricated in Afghanistan for thousands of years, Swire decided to revive the jewelry industry in gemstone-rich areas of the country. Many gems are found in Afghanistan, including lapis, tourmaline, ruby, spinel, emerald and kunzite. “I started Future Brilliance in 2012 to develop the jewelry industry in Afghanistan using gemstones and natural resources found in the country,” Swire says. “The lapis mines in Badakshan, in the north, at 7,000 years old, are the world’s oldest. The Bactrian Gold jewelry collection, which toured museums in the U.S. two years ago, is 3,000 years old. We are trying to rehabilitate skills that are already indigenous to the Afghan culture.”

Female student learning to facet lapis.
   Hayat explains that Future Brilliance is a training program to upgrade the skills of lapidary artisans from gem-bearing parts of Afghanistan through an intensive skills enhancement and apprenticeship program in Jaipur and Kabul. “We are developing a globally recognized jewelry brand — Aayenda — so that the graduates of our program have a developed market to design for and sell into. For this program, we interviewed over 130 people from all over Afghanistan and selected 37 students — 11 were female. The goal of our program is to promote the growth of the gemstone jewelry sector in Afghanistan by elevating the technical and business development skills of artisans while creating new employment and market opportunities for both men and women.” The six-month course, continues Hyatt, “was designed and tailored to the needs of the students to increase their knowledge in design development, branding, sales and marketing, invoicing and financial management as these were the weak points of the majority of the students, especially the females. Besides the jewelry classes, we also arranged English language and personal development courses to boost our students’ self-confidence and help them communicate better with the outside world. These courses not only polish their skills but also provide them with tools and knowledge to compete with other companies in the international markets.”
   With the goal of selling the Aayenda collection into an international market, designers Paul Spurgeon, Anna Ruth Henriques and Annie Fensterstock were brought to Jaipur to work with the students from Afghanistan.
   Each of the designers created collections in different price points to appeal to various consumers. “Our target market is fashion jewelry people who are open to a product that has good design and is for a good cause,” explains Swire. “Aayenda jewelry has different lines featuring retail price points between $100 and $4,000, most at the lower end of that range.” According to Swire, that is the sweet spot for women who want to buy for themselves.

Design

Khala Zada, an illiterate 50-year-old artisan, learns how to facet gemstones.
   Fensterstock became involved in the project through a design competition that was sponsored by Future Brilliance and held through New York City–based showroom Fragments. “We were asked to create an Afghan-inspired collection to be produced by Afghan jewelers,” relates Fensterstock. “We had to use Afghan gemstones and capture the soul of Afghanistan. I was invited to Jaipur to train Afghan jewelry students who were there doing their studies. There were 36 jewelry students — about one-third of them were women. Most women aren’t allowed to leave home so those who were there were very excited and appreciated the opportunity.” Fensterstock, who volunteers her time for the project, visited Jaipur twice in 2013. A bench jeweler, she was able to create collections that were suitable for jewelry students at their level of skill. She was given a budget of $15,000 to create 17 pieces. She used 22-karat gold over burnished sterling silver with emerald, tourmaline, spinel and garnet and made the pieces smaller than her usual designs. “I was drawn to empowering these women. They can design and sell jewelry on an international level,” Fensterstock comments. “They didn’t think that they could, but they now see that they can. I’ve learned a lot from these women.”
   According to Hayat, the program is beginning to pay off for some of the participants. Five months after the students returned from Jaipur, a study was conducted to assess the progress and the current employment status of the students. Thirty-nine percent of the graduates are currently working in their own gem-cutting/jewelry workshops and 38 percent are employed as gem cutters and jewelry designers, half of them in their family businesses and half of them outside of the family business. Only two of the women aren’t working, due to family reasons.
   “However, Khala Zada, who is an illiterate war widow, has doubled the sales of her fine beads after returning to Afghanistan,” says Hayat. “When I visited her in Mazar-e-Sharif last November, she showed us a workshop space where she is planning to take on 30 more artisans, both men and women. Almost all of our students are earning better incomes than before, making them more confident with their work and helping their families to have a better life. Some of the students are also designing for the Aayenda collection and they are so proud so see their drawings and work being recognized and appreciated in the international market. Aayenda means ‘future’ in Dari, the local language. The students liked this name because it represents the hope of a better future for them and for Afghanistan.”
   Up next on the agenda is to move more of the jewelry-making operations to Afghanistan by supplying local workshops with better equipment and a quality control expert who will be delivering ongoing training. “The perfect combination for long-term stability and economic development is tapping locally available resources and enhancing local skills. When you marry the two together, you have the crown jewels of international development,” concludes Swire.

Blocks to Education
  • Roya Hayat lists several reasons why women do not receive an education or work outside of the home in Afghanistan. 
  • Child marriage is prevalent. More than 50 percent of Afghan girls are married or engaged by 12. Almost 60 percent of girls are married by 16. Women activists say up to 80 percent of marriages in poor rural areas are either forced or arranged. So once the girls are married, they have to look after their husband and family and there is no chance for them to go to school. 
  • A lack of security and safety from three decades of war, and the risk of kidnapping and rape, has also prompted many families to force their young daughters out of school. 
  • Widespread poverty still compels many parents to get their daughters out of school to avoid the cost of caring for them and to send their sons to school to look after them in their old age. 
  • Terrorism, including suicide attacks and firebombing of schools, especially girls’ schools, the presence of foreign troops battling against the Taliban and a generally increasing level of violence has stopped many families from sending their daughters to school. Landmine and unexploded ordnances, dangerous roads and infrastructure are also among the reasons that many parents avoid sending their daughters to school. 
  • Women are hidden and isolated because Islamic extremists insist women and girls stay at home and leave only if they are fully covered and accompanied by a male relative. So it is impossible for girls to go to school, especially in rural areas, without a male family member. 
  • There are 1.5 million widows in Afghanistan, one of the highest proportions in the world, because many men have died in armed conflict or they are older men who are outlived by their child brides. The average age of an Afghan widow is 35. Ninety-four percent of those women are illiterate and most have four or more children.

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