Fair trade NGO Label STEP has increased the scope of its aid to Afghan weavers amid the country’s unprecedented and worsening humanitarian crisis. Throughout 2022, programs delivering responsive and preventative health care in Afghanistan supported thousands of weavers and their communities.
Responding to crisis
Carpets in Afghanistan are woven almost exclusively by women, largely in rural areas. These weavers comprise one the most disadvantaged groups in the country, causing them to be among the most greatly affected by its ongoing humanitarian crisis. Label STEP, with the support of the international business and development community, has developed a number of targeted programs to respond to the needs of these Afghan weavers and their families, including:
Free medical services in remote weaving villages
STEP teamed up with Turquoise Mountain (TM) to initiate a program to supply rural weaving villages with free and professional health care services on a regular basis. In the year 2022 alone, a team of female doctors visited over 2,780 weavers at their households to provide consultations, prescriptions, treatments, and other health-related support.
Community Health Services program
STEP and TM also launched a program for training volunteers to give them have the knowledge and equipment required to act as Community Health Workers for their village or neighbourhood. These Community Health Services allow local individuals to act as first responders and independently treat smaller health issues in their community. By the end of 2022, these trainings had taken place in 50 carpet weaving villages and neighbourhoods, and over 521 health related cases had been treated or managed by local volunteers.
In addition to these health care programs, STEP initiated a food aid program in early 2022 as a direct response to the increasing hunger crisis. Local STEP representatives have distributed regular food rations containing basics such as flour, rice, and cooking oil to the families that are most in need. So far, this program has provided a total of 590 families with food support.
Preventing further hardship
When it comes to health, response is only one side of the equation. STEP is interested in looking at health issues holistically, with a focus on prevention. Following guidance from the STEP Standard, local representatives raise awareness among weavers regarding the various health risks associated with the job and suggest preventative solutions. Preventative measures can include things like moving the loom to a bright, well-lit area, adding lightbulbs, five minute breaks every hour, physiotherapy exercises and more. In Afghanistan, STEP has made additional efforts to address, treat, and prevent occupational health-related issues through new, more ergonomic equipment and assistive instruments.
Fulfilling Occupational Health and Safety standards
The two main Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) hazards for carpet weavers include back pain and eye strain. To help eradicate these issues, STEP initiated a program to supply, respectively, vertical looms and optical care to weavers in need. Horizontal looms are common amongst Afghan weavers, however they place undue strain on weavers’ backs as it requires them to bend over. Vertical looms are not only healthier for weavers, they also tend to result in higher quality carpets, which can result in more income. Since the program began, 360 weaver families have received a vertical loom.
Another common issue amongst weavers is bad eyesight or eye strain. In hopes of remedying further issues, STEP sent an optometrist to weaving villages to offer eye checks and provide free prescription glasses. This program has managed to supply a total of 1,839 glasses to weavers in need.
Ongoing care for Afghanistan
The humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan shows no signs of abating, with additional hardships like its harshest winter in decades compounding existing issues of food insecurities and health care access. All of STEP’s humanitarian activities are directly linked to visits by the organization’s local compliance representatives, who not only provide standardized audits of the workshops but who also pay attention to the ongoing and arising needs of the weavers and their communities. In 2022 in Afghanistan, a total of 914 audits were conducted with visits to 709 individual weaver family households and 17 weaving workshops; these efforts put STEP in contact with 2,777 weavers and workers, 90% of whom are women. Throughout 2023, STEP vows to continue these efforts – expanding them where and when possible – to care for weavers and ensure their health and wellbeing.