BEIRUT: Raja used to live with her husband and three children in a large house in Hama. When shelling started in their neighborhood, her husband begged her to take the children and flee to Damascus, promising to follow her once he had finalized a few things. A few days later Raja learned that her husband had been killed. Ongoing violence prevented her from attending his funeral.
Many women in Syria are dependent on their husbands or other male family members to provide income, and as the number of men killed or imprisoned in Syria’s ongoing conflict increases, so too does the number of destitute women left widowed, with a family to feed and no means of earning a living.
Social conventions often dictate that a widowed woman may not live alone. But she is also prevented from living with her husband’s family if this unit includes any unmarried brothers, exposing women with nowhere else to go to the risk of forced marriage.
Raja, whose brother was willing to shelter her and her family, moved into his two-room apartment in Damascus, sharing one room with her children and her mother while her brother, his wife and their five children shared the other.
A family of 11 dependent on the income of a single breadwinner might have left the family in dire straits, were it not for Matar. Founded in 2011 by a group working inside Syria – who requested to remain anonymous for their own safety – Matar provides a means for women whose husbands have been killed or imprisoned during the war to earn a living, regain their independence and start to rebuild their lives.
The Matar team teaches these women handicraft skills, helping them to create colorful embroidered handbags and cushions, warm crocheted blankets and other items, from coasters to coin purses. These handmade products are then sold through Matar’s website to customers in Lebanon, the U.K and parts of Europe, with every dollar spent going directly to the women and their families.
“We provide work and training to displaced and widowed women,” explains Matar’s director of marketing and communications, Itab Azzam. “We also run educational programs for displaced children. Matar aims to break the cycle of poverty and dependence for Syria women through a project that encourages and enables self-reliance.
“The model involves teaching, housing and equipping war widows to take part in the production of handicrafts, resulting in a sustainable business, providing an income for the women through sales of produce outside Syria, and [fostering] a sense of self-esteem, independence and confidence that comes with it.”
Thanks to her job with Matar, Raja now earns around $100 per week, the equivalent of a nurse’s salary in Syria. Working alongside her are a fluctuating number of between 50 and 70 women, who are able to make ends meet by selling their work abroad, bypassing the crisis facing the local economy, which has plummeted as a result of two and a half years of conflict.
Judging by the number of items that sell out before they can be restocked, the handmade products have proved a hit overseas. With coin purses embroidered in colorful geometric patterns starting at around $10 and a crocheted cotton bedspread going for around $90, Matar’s products are relatively inexpensive and provide a fail-safe way for those abroad to contribute money directly to those in need.
“We usually make limited editions of each design,” explains Azzam, “but now [that] we know which are popular, our brilliant team can get crocheting, knitting and sewing new ones. When it comes to design, we really encourage the women themselves to design their own.
“Sometimes we take old traditional designs and apply them to bags and purses. Other times the team of Matar designs new things, but always inspired by traditional handicrafts.”
Azzam says that by providing women with a safe means to support themselves and their families Matar hopes to influences attitudes towards Syrian women working.
“Women suffer all the problems that affect everyone in Syria – shortages, displacement, bereavement and more besides,” she says, “but there are also problems specific to women. Women suffered gender inequality before the conflict, which has now been dramatically exacerbated, in the most extreme form by rape, forced marriage, etc., but also in their complete lack of economic empowerment, particularly those without husbands, or without strong families around them to support them.
“In the short term we provide these women with an income, but in a broader sense, we are also shifting attitudes, giving the women confidence and the respect of those around them as economic agents in their own right. This then also sets an example. We hope that Matar is not only firefighting a current problem, but laying foundations for a new role for women in a future Syria.”
To find out more about Matar visit www.matar.org.uk.