Empowering Saharawi Refugee Business Women

In the Saharawi refugee camps located in the southwestern of Algeria, it is rare to see women like Afia, Aiza and Fatma, rushing to their workplace to stitch, design and sew women’s and men’s clothes, students’ uniforms and kids’ face masks in their very own workshops.

It has only been a couple of months since Afia, Fatma and Aiza — two sisters and their aunt living under the same roof — have started together a tailoring business with the help of the DRC Livelihood programme, supported by Danish foundations, and in collaboration with the UNHCR.

Nonetheless, they already feel empowered within their community.

Our family and friends used to see us as very ordinary women doing homework, but after we started the business, their perception has shifted. They began to see us as leaders, self- reliant, productive, and businesswomen.

Afia Mohamed Moulud

A women-led tailoring business: The journey to viable and sustainable livelihood

United by kinship, Aiza, Fatima and Afia have taken their relationship to the next level and decided to become a professional team. While they have already a strong connexion as a family, their skills’ complementariness is put at profit — an asset to their business they greatly value.

The impact of our project is very positive. On a psychological side, the sense of achievement of the goal we've been pursuing increased our self- confidence. We're very happy that we finally have a special place with high-quality equipment, where we can practise our skills. On the economic side, the impact cannot be measured yet, because we have just started, but we do hope for success.

Afia Mohamed Moulud

All Three

Afia, Aiza and Fatma are three refugee women from Saharawi who have successfully established a tailoring workshop.

Our project is a tailoring workshop. We design and sew women's summer clothes, men's shirts, cushions, students’ uniforms, and face masks for kids. We also provide some mending services, such as stitching the borders of the Melhfa (the Saharawi traditional women wear). We target all social groups as we provide services to both sexes of all ages.

Aiza Cheja and Fatma Mohamed Moulud

Empowerment today for a sustainable tomorrow

Aiza, Fatima and Afia's common aspirations are to build their brand awareness locally, expand to other markets and pave the way for a sustainable future for upcoming generations, especially youth,

DRC’s programme recognises the contribution of refugees, women and girls at the camp, who are leading the charge on mentality shifts, behavioural change to build businesses and a more sustainable future for themselves and their community.

We must, and will, continue to empower women and girls to have a voice and be equal players in decision-making for a sustainable tomorrow.

We aspire to develop our sewing capacity and open new branches in other areass. We want our brand to compete at the local market.

Afia Mohamed Moulud

Western Sahara

Western Sahara is one of the World’s oldest displacement crises and sits largely forgotten, far from the public eye, and low on the agendas of the international community.

The five Saharawi-administered camps still host some 173,600 refugees since 1975, when the conflict over the Western Sahara began.

Pending a political solution, the refugee population remains entirely dependent on international assistance for their basic needs and survival.

Shifting mindsets

Women and girls like Fatima, Afia and Aiza are powerful leaders and change-makers for the camp’s economy and community. They dare to challenge stereotypes about women. They also believe in training youth as an effective way to make a long-lasting impact.

I wish we could set a good example for the younger generation.

Aiza Cheja

Top View

It has only been a couple of months since Afia, Fatma and Aiza — two sisters and their aunt living under the same roof — have started together a tailoring business with the help of the DRC Livelihood programme, supported by Danish foundations, and in collaboration with the UNHCR. Nonetheless, they already feel empowered within their community

I wish to change society's perception that women are unable to manage to run a project. I hope we will acquire a great deal of experience in tailoring that will qualify us to train young Saharaoui women and help them start their projects. The world has a typical image of refugees that they are ignorant, disorganized and reliant people. My wish is to change that vision.

Afia Mohamed Moulud

Reclaiming the right to dream

The lack of any viable and sustainable perspective for Sahrawi youth is often cited as the main cause of frustration in the camps. To address this frustration, reduce the dependency on humanitarian aid, provide Saharawi refugees with livelihood opportunities and help support the camp economy, the “Livelihood” programme implemented by DRC, in collaboration with the UNHCR, and with the support of Danish foundations, has spent the last six years training, funding, monitoring and coaching women like Afia, Aiza and Fatma to start their businesses in tailoring, catering, photography and baking, to name a few.

In an effort to pursue and strengthen its livelihood intervention in 2022 and support Saharawi youth in the camps, DRC aims to pursue its positive collaboration with the UNHCR and Danish foundations, and back new business ideas and invest in sustainable capacity building of this new Sahrawi generation, offering them a different perspective on their future.

Regardless of the many setbacks experienced in the Saharawi camps (and around the world) over the last six years, DRC is there, and will endeavour to remain present, to work alongside Saharawi refugees and enable them, despite their long-term displacement, to live dignified, secure, self-sufficient lives and to realize a future of their of own choosing.

20 tailoring businesses in 2021

Between 2016 and 2020, DRC implemented Business Management and Technical Trainings for 3,000 Saharawi youth and 890 youth received business grants to start or scale-up their enterprises. 244 micro and small youth-led private and public enterprises were supported to start up and expand, and 5 youth centres were rehabilitated and/or constructed and equipped (one per camp). In 2021 an additional 74 businesses were selected and supported.

Download the paper

This story is available as a printable paper in pdf format

Download it here

In collaboration with