Marzia Babakarkhail Credit: Oxfam

‘I am human and I have hope’: Working with women in Oxfam’s shops

Gender, General

The Future Skills programme is empowering marginalised women in the UK to grow in confidence and pursue their goals through shop work experience. Nikki van der Gaag recently visited Oxfam’s Manchester Emporium shop and was inspired by the women who are participating in the programme.

Marzia Babakarkhail Credit: Oxfam

Marzia Babakarkhail, a participant in Future Skills. Credit: Oxfam

The Oxfam shop on Oldham Street in Manchester is rightly named the Emporium. Spacious and beautifully set out, it has books, music, clothes, a huge range of fair trade goods and much more. It is very tempting to get drawn into its depths merely browsing.

But Sally Copley, Head of UK Policy, Programmes and Campaigns for Oxfam GB, and I, are not here to look at leopard print skirts, whatever the temptation. We have come to meet some of the women who are taking part in a brave new venture for Oxfam – and for the women themselves.

They all say that six months ago they would never have been able to talk to us publicly about themselves and their lives in this way
Oxfam in the UK is best known for its humanitarian work – and for its 700 shops. Perhaps less well known are our thousands of projects with women all over the world.

It seemed an obvious idea to bring the latter two together. Most of the staff and volunteers in the shops are women. So Oxfam decided to use our expertise in retail and our experience working with women in other countries to design a programme for women in local communities in the UK, in particular, those who are marginalised in some way and may lack the skills, experience or the confidence to find paid employment.

This is how Future Skills was born as a pilot in Manchester, where they are now on a second cohort of women. Its success has meant that it is now being rolled out in London, Glasgow, Oxford and Cardiff.

‘I have learned to dream again. It is very important to be able to dream.’Marzia Babakarkhail
The first person we meet in the Manchester Emporium is Ahana, who is dealing competently with the steady stream of customers while telling us about her experience of the programme. She was one of the first recruits, and is now training others, to work the tills, deal with the stock, and handle customers.

Like many of the other 14 women we meet, she heard about the programme through a friend who had brought a leaflet from the library.

They all tell us that the main thing they have gained has been a huge increase in confidence. They all say that six months ago they would never have been able to talk to us publicly about themselves and their lives in this way.

Some of the women are local, others came here as refugees from different parts of the world. Many are single parents. Most have had hard lives. But today they are strong, articulate and outspoken.

‘I have learned to dream again. It is very important to be able to dream.’ says Marzia, who was a court judge in Afghanistan.

‘I know that I am human and I have hope’ says Sabah from Pakistan.

Meeting with, and learning from, other women in the group has also been really important, they tell us. So has having a mentor who supported them through the process, and a wonderful trainer in Oxfam’s Caroline Tosal-Suprun.

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Author
Nikki van der Gaag

Nikki van der Gaag

Nikki is Director of Gender Justice and Women’s Rights at Oxfam GB. She brings over 30 years of experience and a proven track record in shaping the debate on women's rights and gender justice in the UK and globally. Nikki has authored many Because I am a Girl reports and co-authored the first State of the World's Fathers.