INDIA: Poor Women Stitch Together New Futures

  • by Manipadma Jena (hyderabad, india)
  • Inter Press Service

Then her husband was killed in the Charminar area during a 1990 Hindu-Muslim clash in Hyderabad. Recalls Unisha: 'Within a moment, my future had hurtled into a dark, bottomless pit.'

Sheer necessity, however, forced the then 24-year-old Muslim widow to try making it on her own. She struggled for years until she encountered Mahila Sanatkar Mutually Aided Cooperative Society, an organisation that trains women in Hyderabad’s traditional crafts and then provides them work.

These days, Unisha is an expert on crochet, beadwork, and especially zardosi, an exquisite but dying form of local hand embroidery that uses silk thread, gems, beads, and sequins.

Unisha most probably had an inherent sewing talent, but Mahila Sanatkar (which means 'women entrepreneur') enabled her to be able to make a living out of it — just as it has helped some 200 other women in Hyderabad, capital of the southern state of Andhra Pradesh. When Mahila Sanatkar was formed in 1999 — it had been operating informally since 1994 — its focus was on social development of underdeveloped Muslim communities. But this did not see much success. 'In 2007,' says Ali Asghar, a well-known social entrepreneur who played a key role in setting up Mahila Sanatkar, 'the strategy shifted to economic development and creating a market presence. This has worked well.' And how. Unisha, for example, used to earn less than a dollar a day rolling yarn, a job she took after her husband’s death. Now she and the rest of her group’s eight members each earn more than 1,000 dollars a year. Jimtiyaz Begum, meanwhile, says that she has been able to send her three children all the way to university all because of Mahila Sanatkar. The cooperative’s training coordinator, Zakira Begum, explains how it works: Collectives are formed in slums by impoverished women aged 18 to 55 years, and whose education ranges from 4th to 8th standard. They then attend awareness workshops on the value of education, health and community rights that are followed by a three-month sewing course.

The women earn as they learn, undertaking job orders as groups. To keep them up to date with the latest market trends, they attend workshops conducted by well-known designers every six months. Mahila Sanatkar members also pick up ideas and orders by participating in garment fairs facilitated by the textile ministry in major Indian cities. Usually, though, each group — comprising women from a single slum — takes job orders from Mahila Sanatkar. These groups buy the raw materials, do the work, and then deliver the goods. Ten percent of whatever each group earns goes to Mahila Sanatkar as service tax and another 10 percent for overhead expenses, such as the use of its premises and machinery. Each group has its own bank account. If one member is unable to pay her share for buying raw materials, another pays for her. But the profit is nevertheless shared equally. 'We are like family, an all-woman workplace,' says Sajida Ansari. 'Our life is here. We fight with anyone talking against Mahila Sanatkar.'

'There is so much personal involvement and everyone takes up the challenge to deliver on time,' says Anita Kumari, who is production in charge at the organisation.

For instance, she says, they recently received an order for 200 mosquito nets. The problem was it had to be delivered in 15 days. 'At best, 10 nets can be stitched in a day,' says Kumari. 'But the women pitched in together and worked furiously till midnight all that fortnight to meet the timeline.' Out till midnight and no fireworks at home? That is the loudest indicator of the social transformation that these women have brought about within their families: Husbands and in-laws who did not even allow the women out of the neighbourhood now accept their late hours. But the women do take measures just to make sure there are no misunderstandings. Says Jimtiyaz: 'If we work late, we hire auto rickshaws and return home in a group, first dropping off the ones who could face trouble at home, so the family sees all of us were together.'

For sure, more women in Hyderabad’s slums and elsewhere need a helping hand like that of Mahila Sanatkar.

Asiya Khatun, one of the organisation’s founders, points out that in Hyderabad’s Muslim communities alone, 'conservatism and regressive social customs…restrict women’s mobility, reinforce the veil or ‘purdah’ custom, resulting in high illiteracy, low incomes and poor health, as well as exploitation and low status at home'.

Yet those who have been helped by Mahila Sanatkar can only inspire others not to lose hope. The once reticent Unisha, for one, is even standing up to her late husband’s uncle, who had already wrested away part of her land but now wants it all. 'I have become so strong,' says Unisha, '(that) I hardly recognise the woman I was 20 years back.'

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service