The model of the Saheli Woman Project: workers first, has proven to be a success. Our primary focus is women’s empowerment, not as a production unit. We strive for ethical fashion, which means generating sustainable income for our female workers and their families.
We believe in empowering women as a way of empowering the whole community. Because of this, the wellbeing of the women we employ is our top priority. In India, it is believed that the female head in each household sets the tone for the rest of the family. If the woman is happy, the rest of the family is happy.
When inside the production studio, one can sense the feeling of pride, camaraderie, and contentment amongst the women working. Situated in a light blue, well-lit room, the kaleidoscope of saris bring energy and color to the space. Outside the studio there’s a courtyard with a children’s library around the corner. Some women even bring their children to work and can be seen sharing chai tea with them in between sewing the garments. There is a certain power when women come together for a cause and this energy can be felt in this cozy space.
“Nothing is impossible here”
These are the words spoken by founder Madhu Vaishnav that embody the mindset of the Saheli women’s group.
Currently, there are 10 sewing machines in use, a patternmaking station in one corner, and an ironing station in another, with plans for expansion. Across from the studio, a client showroom has just been constructed. The hope is to continue to employ our current staff of 35 women and eventually hire and train even more.
It started with one woman. Madhu Vaishnav’s mission was to empower the ladies of the Bhikamkor community to become providers for themselves and their families. She was first exposed to the village while visiting for a wedding. With only $100, the first humanitarian workshops in the village were established. Unfortunately, the women were unable to use this new information because they had no income. However, Madhu saw that every woman in the village owned a sewing machine as part of their marriage dowry. She saw this as an opportunity to begin a skills training course as part of a fashion social enterprise.
In the beginning, it was difficult to persuade the women to leave their homes. The Bhikamkor community maintains conservative views, and the ladies had to gain permission from their husbands and in-laws to participate in our training sessions. While many women attended the early sessions, a large number dropped out as they realized the meticulous nature of the sewing, stitching, and garment construction techniques. Along with this, most of the women in these training sessions were illiterate, and even understanding numbers and measurements was new.
As we began to train only 5 dedicated women, this change in the ladies leaving home each day proved to be a difficult cultural shift. This represents one of the most crucial ongoing issues for the Saheli Project and IPHD as a whole: breaking cultural norms while maintaining family values. This was one of the main factors in the slow initial growth of the project. The cultural situation is improving, thanks in part to both the initial brave ladies who left their homes, but also their trusting families and husbands who believed in them.
Once we were able to train the initial group of Saheli ladies, and they began to earn a salary, they set an example for the rest of the community. It started with small clutches. At first, they were in disbelief in earning 3,000 rupees per month. As we began to partner with more brands their salaries steadily grew. 3 years later the ladies are earning 12,000 rupees per month.
However, this shift to the women becoming the primary earners of the household has also proven to be a challenge. These formerly unemployed women earning even more than their husbands lead to issues of money management, changing family dynamics, and whether their husbands will continue to work.
As our organization continues to grow we seek to confront these challenges and continue on our path of sustainable growth.