Narges was at her wits’ end. The responsibility of supporting her young family was on her slender shoulders. She knew she would have to go out and earn, to meet the needs of the household. But where would she find work? As the COVID-19 pandemic kept its relentless hold on Iran, jobs for the unskilled workers such as Narges were even more scarce than before. Narges and her son worried that she would have to venture far beyond the familiar bounds of her own Boroujerdi village in Lorestan province to find some employment.
Azar from Boroujerdi village stepped in to give her an opportunity. She offered Narges a job in the almond-processing unit she had started in the village. Azar is the local facilitator of the Rapid Socio-Economic Response (RASER) project launched by UNDP to support Women-Headed Households (WHH) on the ground.
Focus on women-headed households
Over the past few years, the ever-growing number of WHH, currently accounting for three million households out of a total of 22 million families in Iran, has sharpened the attention of policymakers on women and their families.
The labour market structure indicates that most women in Iran, especially in rural areas, are keen to start micro-, small- and medium-sized enterprises (MSME). This led to the realization that empowering WHH through entrepreneurship can make a huge difference to the quality of the life of these families.
UNDP’s response focuses on empowering WHH by recovering and creating local micro-jobs. The support ranges from the provision of tools, such as sewing machines and fruit-processing equipment, to raising awareness about measures against COVID-19.
Aiming for inclusive economic growth
RASER was launched under the Socio-Economic Response Programme (SERP) developed by the UN team in Iran to mitigate the impact ofCOVID-19. The initiative was based on the knowledge that investing in women's economic empowerment has multiplier effects in addressing inequality, poverty reductions and therefore inclusive economic growth. In times of uncertainty, whether caused by economic sanctions or the COVID-19 pandemic, there must be a focus on vulnerable households, particularly WHH, in Iran to ensure that no one is left behind.
RASER is being implemented in over 90 villages in three provinces - Lorestan, Hormozgan and Tehran. With the support of the Government, a total of 5,000 vulnerable households were identified. All the identified households were provided essential COVID-19 supplies (masks, sanitizers, gloves and educational brochures). Significantly, all the distributed Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) was produced by the empowered WHH in these provinces.
By the end of 2020, about 800 vulnerable groups including WHH have been recruited in either restored or newly established MSMEs.
New supplies to meet new demands
The impact of the pandemic and the sanctions have diminished both the buying power of local households (demand) and the selling ability of businesses (supply). The innovative architecture of RASER includes a business recovery component, which allows for demand and supply to reach an equilibrium. For instance, WHH producing clothes, which were grappling with a shortage of sales, were quickly assisted to reposition themselves as mask and gown producers. The masks distributed among 5,000 households (demand) were all produced by WHH in the recovered/established sewing workshops (supply). The project also focuses on the sustainability of jobs and the comparative advantage, i.e., local women are guided towards the production of sustainable products, which can be produced better or more cheaply in their communities compared with other producers in other regions. As part of RASER’s social aspect, a social protection scheme has been designed to support 1,350 vulnerable households in the target areas.
Razieh, the local facilitator of Tazian-e-Paein village in Hormozgan, says, “Although we had the inherent capacity to expand our sewing output, we did not have proper sewing tools, and were operating with only two workers. On the other hand, the local women were growing depressed amid the pandemic and were very eager to start a business initiative. Thanks to UNDP’s support for providing sewing machines, we now employ 10 women, some of whom did not even know how to sew or use a sewing machine earlier, so not only have they learned new skills but they are able to support their families in the midst of a pandemic outbreak.”
This project has been made possible by the joint efforts of local partners including the Ministry of Jihad Agriculture, Vice-Presidency for Women and Family Affairs and Ministry of Labour, Cooperatives and Social Welfare.
Azar’s almond-processing workshop is an example of a recovered and then expanded micro-business under RASER. For Azar, Narges’ comments about how her life has improved are a big boost. “Such words empower me to overcome the challenges an entrepreneur encounters”, she says.
Meanwhile, Narges no longer needs to worry about finding a job. Nor does she have to grapple with a long commute. She has found congenial employment in her own village working hand-in-hand with other empowered women. Both Narges and her young son are looking forward to a brighter future!