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AfghanMark
AfghanMark enables rug buyers to help Afghan women
By Stevenson Swanson
Chicago Tribune national correspondent

NEW YORK -- The beauty of
Afghan carpets, with their intricate patterns and vibrant
colors, belies the ugly conditions under which many of them are made.

The women who weave the rugs in Afghanistan are usually paid less than $1 a day.
Many sit or stand hunched over a dimly lit loom, straining their eyes and their backs.
Children as young as 12 may labor next to them.

AfghanMark is aimed at reducing those hardships.

A new certification program run by the
Afghan Women's Business Federation,
AfghanMark is intended to guarantee higher wages and better working conditions
for the weavers who work for the eight carpet companies or consortiums that have
agreed to abide by the labor standards set by the federation.

Carpets produced by those manufacturers will carry an
AfghanMark label, showing a
woman whose head is wrapped in a traditional scarf, and bearing the words, "Made
by
Afghan Women."

"We feel this is a win-win situation for everyone," said business federation
spokeswoman Halima Kazem at a press conference here last week announcing the
certification system. "Through their purchase options, American consumers have
the opportunity to improve the lives of Afghan women."

The women's business federation was set up after U.S.-led forces ousted the
Taliban regime in 2001, following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Funded by the U.S.
government's Agency for International Development, the federation seeks to help
women become more involved in the Afghan economy, which is struggling to recover
from nearly a quarter-century of war and brutal repression under the Taliban.

The country's carpet industry is a logical focus for the federation. Carpets
traditionally have been made by female weavers, and they are one of Afghanistan's
best-known legal exports -- as opposed to opium, its biggest cash crop.

Afghan folklore credits the invention of the hand-knotting method of making carpets
some 3,500 years ago to a woman named Khali, whose name lives on in the Afghan
word for carpet, kaleen.

The AfghanMark program represents roughly 27,000 carpet weavers, or about 18
percent of the country's estimated 150,000 weavers. Through the program,
manufacturers hope to differentiate themselves from the pack; many of these
businesses have women managers or owners who are committed to improving the
lot of Afghan women.

"It's growing," Kazem said after the press conference at the Rubin Museum of Art,
which specializes in the art of the Himalayas and adjoining regions. "We hope every
carpet company joins us."

The AfghanMark program requires manufacturers to pay weavers 50 percent more
than the current wage, or about $1.50 a day, and to give a weaver a 10 percent
commission on the sale of a carpet she wove.Also, the payments must be made in
cash. Weavers are sometimes paid with food, Kazem noted. To qualify for
certification, companies must agree to use vertical looms instead of horizontal floor
looms, which increase back and eye strain.

Companies in the program are subject to random inspections, and if children are
found working on the looms, inspectors will stop the work and refer the children and
their parents to organizations that provide schooling for working children. Likewise, if
inspectors determine that a weaver needs medical care, they will send her to a
health clinic.

After two violations of the AfghanMark standards, a company will be tossed out of
the program, Kazem said. During their visit to America to launch AfghanMark, Kazem
and other representatives of the certification program planned to meet with carpet
wholesalers to discuss import deals that would bring AfghanMark carpets to this
country.

Kazem sees the "Made by
Afghan Women" labeling effort as an important step in
reviving the country's once-thriving carpet industry. In the 1970s, the carpet trade
pumped about $40 million into Afghanistan's economy, but after the 1979 Soviet
invasion and the war that followed, the industry collapsed. Many weavers fled to Iran
and Pakistan.

Latifa Abasy was one of those refugee
weavers. While in Pakistan, she studied
English and worked in an Afghan carpet gallery. Now, she's in charge of trade
development for the women's business federation, which estimates that the Afghan
carpet industry could grow from a low of $2.5 million in 2002 to $18 million-plus in
2009.

Abasy hopes to increase the number of
Afghan carpets that are shipped through
Dubai. Now, most are shipped through Pakistan, where they are labeled "Made in
Pakistan" before being sent to America. "To develop a brand name for Afghan
carpets, that's the goal that we have to reach," she said.

sswanson@tribune.com