Sewing a Life beyond the Courtyard and the Field

Working with one hand, and holding an umbrella in the other, Tara bent over to weed the grass. As she weeded, she recalled her mother. When she was 4 years old, she enjoyed watching her mother work in the fields and helping her in the little ways she could. Just to see her child smile, despite the abysmal poverty, Aradhana worked happily. Tara’s smile was beyond the pain Aradhana felt while weeding the grass beds. Tara became her shadow in the sun. She could only earn a few pennies and though a handful of rice was all she could afford, they were contented. More than that, Tara was at peace to be with her mother.

The day was fateful when Tara grew up to be 8. Little did the girl realize that she would be sent to live with a man, much older than she was. She sobbed as her mother told her it was the will of God. 5 years have passed, yet the scars of her marriage haunt her. She worked in the scorching heat every day. When there was no sun, the rain did not stop her from weeding. At the close of every day, she would straighten her back and head home to prepare food for Jagan, her husband. She fed on the leftover. She didn’t get anything better to eat, even when she needed to. Prolonged hours of squatting in the field with a pregnant belly, Tara gave birth to a premature baby who had too little weight to survive. Soon, she was forced out of her house when her husband didn’t need her anymore.

Tara was then 13, still a child. She does not recall anymore everything that happened to her. But today, she is keen to share what happened after. It was her destiny that she met Meher. Truly a blessing, she knew this was the perfect shelter for Tara. Meher took her to an NGO that was truly meant for empowering young women like her. Tara was upset to know that, like her, there were many more young women who had suffered the unimagined. However, they rose above everything. They were now doing what people thought they could not, what they themselves thought they could not. They became economically independent. They didn’t need someone else to feed them. They were their own support. Tara was immensely inspired. Though she was not self-reliant then, she did not feel destitute either.

10 years since then, the foundation has supported Tara to become a self-supporting person. With the embroidery and tailoring skills she learnt here, she embellished not only wonderful designs but she also sewed for herself a comfortable life. Influenced by the generous efforts of Ela Bhatt, she soon wishes to pioneer a self-help group to generate employment to help many women rise above poverty. The 83-year-old Ela Bhatt founded Self Employed Women’s Association, world’s largest trade union. Even for Bhatt, the social and economic obstacles made it uneasy to get more women to work. But with her dedication, she did lessen the insufficiency of skills and created jobs for economically backward women.

Women can contribute a lot to the growth of India in multifaceted ways. For the nation to modernize, women’s progress becomes vital. And Jaswantiben Popat’s incredible story proves it to all. Defying her age, with youthful determination, Jaswantiben says Lijjat Papad has today survived as a big business and will continue to inspire more women to work. Even when the level of literacy restricted Jaswantiben and her sisters the chances to get a job, they experienced success and the business grew from 7 to 43,000 women workers. Many women working at this women-only-cooperative reveal that they were afraid to leave their homes mainly due to gender-based violence or because they were married before the legal age of 18. But gathering enough courage to take the needed step worked in favour of them. Fuelling the Indian economy with pride, Jaswantiben and her team have shown that the nation progresses when, along with safety and security, women are given opportunities to grow.

Though, being urban, the high profile Indian lady entrepreneurs are known, the rural women may not always be recognized for their work. And even when some of these may be given recognition, women icons from these areas are far and few. 43,000 women may be just a handful of the Indian population. But, regardless of being meek and elderly, Jaswantiben has helped them in rising above all odds. Overwhelmingly, the political sector has given women the chance to become stronger. By showering Jaswantiben Popat with one award after another, India has appreciated her as a perfect example of inspiration.

Like Ela Bhatt and Jaswantiben Popat, Tara with her dream to initiate self-help group may become another inspiration for women toiling in the fields. Since ages, agriculture and women have been closely related. The declining participation of Indian women in labour force has been sad for the country. Perhaps, because this didn’t mean that this sect has moved beyond the labour market. The realistic reason is that mechanization gave rise to shrinking farm sizes. The dwindling labour demands pushed women to move out of the workforce. Even when these women who lost their work were now free to focus on their families, they had less money to fulfil their needs. To gain greater control in household decision making, they need sufficient income. The care and nurturing they provide to the family gets accepted only when they contribute further with productive resources.

Despite the comfort mechanization has given, a lesser number of farms indicates that there is the need to create more jobs so women can move from agricultural to non-agricultural manual work. Among many non-profit organizations, Ekta Shakti Foundation too is one that believes women can easily crawl up the ladder to better their economic status in the society. Little support and encouragement are all they need to realise the unbelievable potential they hold within themselves.

The rapid growth and developments in India does make one proud but when it comes to gender equity, does one see much growth? One may consider the field of agriculture as an example. The tools for farming were made by men, for men. Even when women were introduced to the fields, these tools were never refashioned for them nor did these comfort their hands. Going further, women do most of the work in the fields, and while the work has been visible, women as workers remain invisible - they simply remain the forces and the helpers in the background, while the male heads of the families take the lead.

Women do a major share of household work and childcare. While some do it out of their will, some are expected to invest more time at home than in the professional spheres. Opting out of marriages is something they cannot think of. And childcare being one of the major reasons why women drop out of the labour pool, overall, a very bad outcome emerges for the society. As a solution, encouraging workplaces to be more sensitive to the family needs of a woman may benefit the female employees and community at the same time.

Women from labouring classes may go one step ahead to find better jobs. Roads have been constructed and buses have been installed. But do these allow women to travel beyond gender inequality? Even when they may, the long distances between home and workplace means that they will need more time to commute. Thus, leaving them less time for their family duties. Circumstances like these often create the family pressure that becomes another reason for them to leave their jobs. Such are the problems women coming from humble and disadvantaged backgrounds face, not once, but everyday. Only 27% of women in India participate in the female labour force of the country. Perhaps, one of the lowest in the world. Then what should be the role of women in helping India’s growth?

There is no denying that education is indeed important for everyone, but needful and troubled women in India can still enjoy healthy livelihoods. Ekta Shakti Foundation hopes to inspire the birth of many such organizations that create employment fields more inclusive for women, especially for those who are devoid of schooling. It chose embroidery as one way these women could stitch and improve the stories of their own lives. Indeed, it has helped them to control their own lives with vocational training. For the women at this foundation, sewing has moved beyond work. It has become their support to fetch decent earnings from working within their homes.