At the extremity of the village, amid the dim winter weather, a melancholic song coming from a nearby mudhouse made itself heard with singular distinction. The owner of the voice, 24-year-old Uzma Mukhtar, is busy aesthetically carving designs on a woolen rug. She was 18 when her father could not fund her education. Uzma has two younger sisters and her ironsmith father’s meagre income could not afford extra expenditure for education. She was asked to earn. It took her a month to learn Kashmiri embroidery from an artisan in her village and she began dazzling her master with the finesse of her work. Holding a hooked needle known as an “aar” — similar to a crochet needle — she narrated how her embroidery shrugs used to be sold at exuberant prizes at showrooms and she was exploited.
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“The agents who would give us the work would take the lion’s share and we would get peanuts,” Uzma told ucanews.com. “It takes me more than a week to carve a design on a single fabric and it will fetch me 300 rupees. Monthly I earn no more than 1,000 rupees. The agents who provide the work take it all.” The constant feeling of being exploited made her think of giving up but three months ago she suddenly abandoned the idea. “I will now continue to work as an embroidery artist,” Uzma said. In September, Jammu and Kashmir Catholic Social Service Society, the social service wing of the Catholic Church in the Muslim-dominated state, held an awareness camp in Uzma’s village in Pulwama district. Uzma attended the program along with few others, hoping to get some new employment opportunities. “But they offered something more than that. They guided us in the right direction,” she said. The charity organization of Jammu-Srinagar Diocese aimed to connect local artisans directly with showrooms and firms to sell their products, cutting out the middlemen. “We want these people to sell their crafts directly to the firms and earn more,” said program coordinator Altaf Hussain. He told ucanews.com that the program also made participants aware of various government schemes such as financial schemes for craftsmen to buy raw materials at subsidized rates. The agency has held more than 50 such camps in the Kashmir Valley that helped more than 500 artisans. Uzma says she has now more work and more income. “I was taken to various showrooms where I displayed my work. They liked my work and gave me more work at a good price. If all goes well, instead of 300 rupees, I will now be earning no less than 1,500 per fabric,” she said excitedly. Uzma now encourages other girls in her village to learn the craft and earn. “I taught this craft to other girls and they have begun working from their homes.” Even university students such as Saima Jan are now engaged in such crafts. She designs three fabrics every month from home to support her 10-member family. For Afroza, another embroidery artist from southern Kashmir, told ucanews.com that the Church group took her to the government’s handicraft department. Officials explained to her about various schemes available for artisans like her. “Developing direct contact with the government has strengthened my belief that earning a good living out of local crafts is possible,” she said. The handicraft industry in Kashmir is considered a strong base for employment generation in the conflict-torn region. Government records show the state of 12 million people has 507,372 establishments dealing with handicraft items including carpets, embroidery shawls and papier mache. Major buyers are tourists visiting the Himalayan foothills. Kashmir has more than one million artisans, with 19 percent of them women. Government employment department data show that 58 percent of people in the Kashmir Valley depend directly or indirectly on its handicraft industry.