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Starting a new life: business training for women prisoners in Tajikistan

This year the ILO's Start and Improve Your Business (SIYB) programme celebrates its tenth anniversary in Central Asia. Thousands of trainees have profited from the programme so far. Olga Bogdonova from the ILO Moscow office reports from Tajikistan where 60 women serving prison terms received training under the programme since April 2005.

Article | 07 September 2005

DUSHANBE, Tajikistan - After the collapse of the Soviet Union and civil war, Tajikistan has been in a very difficult economic situation. Unemployment, low wages and extreme poverty bring many women who have to support their family in conflict with the law.

Many of them become drug mules. Risking their lives they smuggle capsules with narcotic substances inside their bodies. In case of arrest they are sentenced to several years in prison.

"Three years ago we came up with the idea of arranging Start and Improve Your Business (SIYB) training for women who serve their prison terms on charges of illicit drug trafficking", says Alisher Rakhimov, Director of the National SIYB Trainers Association. "Since then we've been looking for a partner organization to help us implement the project".

In the second half of 2004 the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation in Tajikistan announced a small grants contest within the Penitentiary System Reform project. "We participated and received support for the implementation of our project on social and labour rehabilitation of women in penitentiary institutions. The Penitentiary Department of the Republic's Ministry of Justice hailed our initiative", Rakhimov explains.

Since April 2005, 60 women from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Russia serving terms in women's labour colony no. 3/13 in Nurek, Tajikistan underwent training under the SIYB programme. Trainers prepared manuals for the new entrepreneurs in Russian and Tajik. Dinners and coffee breaks were part of the programme to promote an informal atmosphere and social exchange.

Participants learnt how to work out their own business plans, to get credit for their business, to choose a good business idea, to prepare a budget for the whole year, and to estimate the starting capital they need.

The trainees practiced their newly acquired skills in a SIYB game playing the role of a manufacturer, a supplier and a sales person. According to participants, it was not easy to run a business even as a game, as it was necessary to have not only management capacities, but also good communication skills and knowledge of negotiation rules.

"The SIYB programme in Tajikistan is now in its fifth year. We have trained over 700 trainees, but none of the previous audience was as active and as grateful as these women prisoners",says Sergei Muzyka who introduced the programme in Tajikistan. "All participants did their homework under difficult circumstances, sometimes working till 3 a.m."

Things were not easy for the trainers either. It was the first time that they met people with such different levels of education and skills in one group. Some women had forgotten how to use a calculator or would not be able to do easy arithmetic operations. Trainers had to explain certain things over and over again but finally they shared their students' joy about their achievements.

Starting a new business, starting a new life

Some students even took their own initiatives for follow-up. One of the women trainees met with her father, a successful businessman, and studied with him the Start Your Business: Handbook ( Note 1) and the feasibility study she had done herself. She asked the trainers for more books and they gave her the Improve Your Business: Basics ( Note 2) book.

Another trainee asked her relatives to keep the books in a safe place until her release. In a gesture of gratitude, women prisoners offered their trainers hand-made toys and other souvenirs.

Since this first training course, the SIYB project staff continue to feel personally responsible for the future of these women. Although it is not in his direct duty, Rakhimovis now looking for sources to finance the women prisoners business projects after their release.

"After their imminent release we try to find organizations that will be able to provide them with start-up capital. It's not going to be an easy task. Banks and state-run financial institutions will hardly agree to give credits to people with a criminal record", he says. "But these women now look forward to a brighter future after so many dark years. And we want to help them starting a new life", he adds.

Since its predecessor started in the 1970s, SIYB has made its way to become a worldwide programme. An estimated 350,000 entrepreneurs have benefited from the program over the years. To date, the ILO has introduced the "Start and Improve Your Business" methodology in more than 80 countries, most recently to help rebuild Tsunami affected economies in Aceh and Sri Lanka.

"To small business owners and managers globalization means rapid change and increased competition. To encourage competitiveness, business growth and employment creation, we assist partners in building national and local capacity in cost-effective and sustainable business development services; such as management training, access to finance, information on technologies, export and domestic markets access, and inter-firm linkages", explains Michael Henriques, Director of the ILO's Job Creation and Enterprise Development Department.

The Department also plans to develop an interactive CD-ROM version of SIYB and a new Expand Your Business product for growth oriented enterprises.

Note 1

Note 2 - Improve Your Business: Basics, International Labour Office, Geneva, 1999, ISBN 92-110853-8. For more information about these publications please visit: /publns.