India: from poverty to empowerment
Archana is now 55 years old and has been working in this unit for 35 years. She was born and brought up in Kolaghat and studied till class 1V. She had to discontinue her studies as the entire family had to face hard days following the devastating floods that took place in 1978. They lost almost everything they owned and had to build up their lives all over again.
Archana got married a few years later and came to Kolkata where her husband worked but very soon she had to face a bitter truth that changed her life forever. She discovered her husband had a relationship with another woman and wanted to marry her. Though he also wanted Archana to stay with them, she refused and went back to her family in Kolaghat. Archana wanted to learn some skills so that she could earn and look after herself. She got to know about an organization that worked on welfare projects, especially catering to the women in her village. She joined Kolaghat Socio Economic Welfare Society and started participating in all their programs. When Samity was created she joined to get training in the tailoring section. Her skills improved and soon she started working on export orders from Sasha.
In the meantime she approached the Socio legal aid research center for help as she wanted a legal separation from her husband. He had not helped her financially and he had married again. The center helped her and she finally got a legal separation. She did not get back her jewelry and had to build her own life again. Her brother was there by her side and helped her during those uncertain times. Besides tailoring she also took up another job as a cook in the Panchayat Angarwadis, where she cooked the midday meals. She started working in both places so that she could meet her own expenses, since she did not want to be a burden to her brother. Samity for her is like a second home and she will always work there until her health permits. She has encouraged many women in her community to join Samity and thanks to her experience and hard work she is now in charge of the newly opened training center for tailoring at Samity.
“When I joined the Samity I had no idea about Fair Trade and Gender equality but gradually I have realized that it is very much important especially for women. Because of the Samity and Sasha I have become an economically independed woman. I am happy that I do not need any financial support from any male member of my family. I have that ability to earn my livelihood on my own.”
Majeda’s story is one of women empowerment and a strong will to be successful in her work field. Majeda was born in Katalia - 24 Parganas in a family of 11. While studying in class VIII she contracted meningitis and had to discontinue her studies further due to health reasons. She heard about Sreemaa Mahila Samity in Dutta Fulia from her cousin sister and was interested to learn tailoring. She started to work in this unit. In the meantime she got married in 2001 and came to live in Datta Fulia and continued to work at the unit for 22 years. She came to know about Sasha when she went to deliver a order from Sreemaa.
Majeda always had an ambition to start her own unit. Since she was having some problems at her previous work place and her husband also was not working regularly because of his health problems, she decided to start her own unit in 2011. She contacted Sasha and started making samples and learning all the necessary to make a quality product. Majeda started the group with 10 women, and now she is running a regular group of 24 artisans (among them 22 are female) efficiently. Her financial condition has improved. In the financial year of 2016-17, the Group had a turnover of INR 5.55 lacs (equivalent to USD 8871) and she could educate her daughter and son. The women who are working with her could also lead better lives and save money for their children’s marriage.
As Majeda says she owes a lot to Sasha for showing her the path to economic independence and making her a strong and confident woman to lead the other women in her community. Majeda believes that hurdle in life can only make a person strong. She has much more exposure now and she learned about running an independent business. The constant support from Sasha is helping women like her to realize their abilities and aspirations. Her dream is to see all the women in her village working and supporting their families.
"Traveling almost every alternate day to Kolkata is tough. But it is the fuel for my life. It supports so many women in my unit. They cannot venture out of their homes. Sasha is like my second home. Only because of Sasha, now I am a complete person, who can strongly support her family economically".
Sushoma’s village lies near the Sundarbans. Life in the Sundarbans is extremely tough, ravaged with cyclones and floods with very limited livelihood options. Then one day, by chance she came into contact with MANDIRBAZAR SHILPO UNNOYON MAHILA SHAMITY, which was supplying to SASHA in those days, and she started working with them. After a few years, when Samity’s business with Sasha dwindled for various reasons, Sushoma did not despair but instead decided to start her own business (Sushoma Enterprise) with a desire to succeed in life, be independent and earn her own livelihood. Sushoma works with 35 artisan women in her village, mostly on recycled products and textile made-ups, which she supplies to Sasha. The Group’s turnover was about Rs 7.50 lacs in 2016-17 - equivalent to USD 11720.
Sushoma believes that women should get employed along with men as this can only help them in finding their own identity. For the village people she is like a role model. They now take her as example for how she is managing her whole business. Sushoma now considers herself self-reliant. Running her own business has helped her a lot in raising her self-confidence. She really feels proud being the owner of Sushoma Enterprise. She considers the wellbeing of all women (she engages 35 female artisans) working under her as her responsibility.
“I was confused. My husband had no enthusiasm for work. In those days, nobody could even imagine what days I had experienced. My only concern was to survive and bring up my children. Any type of work was acceptable for me then. Although it was poverty which forced me to work, but now I feel proud of myself. Being associated with Sasha for so many years and having formed my own unit, I am now a changed person; self-reliant and self-confident; my daughter has finished her college, and the health as well as economic condition of my family members has improved a lot. I can easily deal with Bank officers without any hesitation. Women already working with me are bringing the other women to work in the group and my son and daughter-in – law have taken over the responsibility of managing my business!”
Shukla was born in a lower middle class family. Father, mother, two sisters and she - these were the members in her family. She was the eldest among her sisters. Her father had a garment shop at Barabazar. As her mother used to be busy in machine stitching, the total responsibility of the family was upon Shukla. Being the eldest of all three she had to make many sacrifices in her life.
When Shukla joined Self-Help Handicraft Society, she hardly knew about the organization’s networks and the principles of Fair Trade and its standards. She joined Self-Help after having her training in Batik from La Martinier’s. Her immense positive attitude and learner mentality helped her lot to pick up all types of works at Self-Help. While she was an employee of Self-Help Handicraft Society, Shukla started her own enterprise, called Karma Shilpo. It was the immense support and motivation from her parents which turned Karma Shilpo to what it is today. It is a small family business with 5 women artisans and produces embroidered accessories and textile made-ups for Sasha. Karma Shilpo’s turnover was INR 7.32 lacs in FY 2016-17, equivalent to USD 11438.
Shukla firmly believes that all women should work. She told us jokingly that if she was married, she had to seek permission from her husband for every single work that she did. But now she is free and can take her own decisions. She firmly believes that only economic independence can give a women self-confidence and proper identity.
"Poor economic condition of the family was the main reason which forced me to get employed as the health condition of my father was not well in those days and being the eldest sister I had to take all the responsibilities to run the family. But I have learnt through Fair Trade practices what a woman can achieve in her life if she gets proper guidance. As for me I always got that guidance from Sasha. We are three sisters and do not have any brother and my relatives were not happy about it. They were always asking my mother who will look after her as she did not have a son. They believed that only men could earn. Now I have proved them wrong. Now I consider myself totally self-reliant and firmly believe that women also should be employed along with men. I really feel proud being the owner of the enterprise Karma Shilpo. I feel like a proud mother as Karma Shilpo is doing so well”.
As a 37-year-old young woman, Santana joined Jeevika Development Society around 15 years ago after being trained in tailoring in 2002. While recollecting her path, she narrated that she had to drop out of school in class IX due to poverty. Her mother was closely involved with the renowned NGO called CINI in Pailan, under their poverty alleviation and other programmes. Later on, she also joined the same NGO to learn different skills for livelihood. In 2002, she joined Jeevika’s embroidery unit.
While under training she got engaged with a rich local boy but soon she started facing problems in her relationship and he suddenly broke the engagement and got married to a rich girl. This affected her family, so her younger brother started to blame her for this break up and started behaving rudely towards her. This kind of behavior from her own family upset her deeply but she continued to remain strong and held on to the training which she was receiving at Jeevika. She could not contribute much to the family earnings and her family kept making her feel that she was a burden and needed to get married. Santana, being a strong willed person, was determined to increase her income by keeping her job and resolved not to get married again.
“It was my organization – Jeevika which supported me in these hard times and made me economically independent. They sent me for various trainings and soon because of my sincerity and hard work I got the opportunity to take full responsibility to lead the hanging group Amader Swapno. The Group now engages 8 women artisans and had a turnover of INR 4.40 lacs, equivalent to USD 6875 in 2016-17, making mainly decorative hangings and children’s accessories. My confidence grew when I started visiting Sasha to take orders, take decisions on production planning and executing it successfully. My work has empowered me to look after my family financially and I have been able to enlarge my house so that my family is comfortable. I strongly feel that due to Fair Trade I have become aware of gender equality and it has helped me to fight against all discrimination against women. I am very happy that my work has made me so strong and independent and that I have been able to change the attitude of my family members towards gender equality, who now share my belief in women empowerment. I am determined to keep on working at Jeevika till my last breath”.
Story contributor: Sasha
For International Women's Day 2018