Embroiderers & microcredit: Sheila Arnopoulos in India

January 30, 2008
From Sheila in Ahmedabad India with grassroots women embroiderers
I’m deep into research into India, in Ahmedabad, actually, a city of about six million that is seen as a powerhouse of industrial activity. It is also the headquarters of SEWA, the Self Employed Women’s Association, an organization that has organized nearly a million grassroots women at the bottom of the heap in 7 states. But in the state of Gujarat, where they got going, there are 500,000. This includes street vendors, paper pickers, rag pickers, head loaders, and a host of other groups in this city where Gandhi has his ashram. And lots more in the countryside. The women have organized into unions, cooperatives and businesses that mean they aren’t so exploited.
The women, under the aegis of this marvellous woman called Ela Bhatt, also started their own bank, with 6,000 poor women that were barely making a dollar a day contributing 75 cents each to get it going.
Regular Indian banks were actually mandated to cater to poor women. But their hours were no good — they closed at 3, and the women work until 6 — and they didn’t like illiterate women with kids in tow that didn’t talk softly!!
So the women started their own bank in a cooperative model. And for those interested in returns, they get 15% on their shares. They have savings, and through the bank they have also been able to get insurance for health, death, and natural disasters — quite plentiful here — earthquakes, cyclones, floods, and then communal (as they call it) riots.
I was here in 2002 when 2,000 Muslims were massacred by Hindus on the rampage, organized by the fundamentalist Hindu party in power.
I am here because of a large group of village embroiderers that were starving in the deserts north of Ahmedabad some 20 years ago and are now making a good living because of an embroidery company where they are the shareholders. They started doing microcredit and now they have sales of a quarter of a million Candian dollars and are gunning for double that for this financial year.
I have been in villages visiting the grassroots women embroiderers who are creeping into the 21st century thanks to some young women college grads that organized them and are helping bring their traditional designs into contemporary clothing that upper-class Indians and westerners (like me) will buy. They have a beaautiful handicraft shop in Ahmedabad called Banascraft and another called Hansiba in Delhi.
So this is an example of how microcredit can go way beyond a woman just investing in starting a tea stall or buying a few goats. Three thousand grassroots women are involved in this enterprize, and as the orders start to come in, a lot more are in the wings waiting to join.
They do handmade embroidery on clothes where the fabric is made of vegetable dyes. I have bought a couple of outfits myself — salwar kameez– tunics with pants. And for Westerners like me they’ve made the pants straight down and not billowing and with pockets! When I bought the pants, they first showed me the billowing kind, and explained that Indian women: wear them to bed, to do yoga, to sit on the floor (since in villages there
are no chairs), and to work, and so they need to be ample. I explained I
didn’t need such ample pants.
Hi to everyone. Here it is hot, but a few days ago it dipped to 6 degrees, and there were stories in the papers talking of people freezing to death, and others with respiratory ailments. My hotel has no heating. But across the street some people are living in rag tents. I saw them sitting around a wood fire trying to warm themselves.
So I am where the majority of the world lives. It is not depressing. Everyone is actually working hard, including a guy on the street who for 5 rupees (about 12 cents) will give you information about how to find places in the city, if you’re lost. Usually any rickshaw driver
(autorickshaw) I’ve had doesn’t know the city. So such guys are useful. An example of how people here will use anything to make some money, because there is no welfare nor pensions here. You live on what you make.
Sheila, also known here as Sheilaben, which means Sheila Sister. In other parts of India I am Sheila M’am, but in this women’s organization, everyone is a Sister. A great atmosphere.

Leave a Comment

comm comm comm