Back in 1980 I did not specifically set out to challenge tradition and re-make women’s economic destinies. I was back at home in Mumbai following my studies at college in India and graduate school in Chicago, U.S.A. Inspired by my mother’s social work I was developing a program for people in the slums suffering from leprosy. Two women from that area, who knew about me and my work, approached me to ask for help. Their husbands had a history of getting drunk and selling whatever they could get their hands on to obtain money for more alcohol. When the men started drinking the women brought me their small kerosene stoves for safekeeping. These were meagre household riches, but if they were sold the women would be unable to prepare food for their families. They did not have money to buy new stoves and it was uncertain when or if their husbands would give them money. This insight into the economic insecurity of women and their lack of power in marriage and society started me on a path that led ultimately to the founding and success of the nonprofit and fair-trade organization MarketPlace: Handwork of India.
This “path” has had a lot of twists, turns and dead ends because we were learning as we grew. At first I was the social science grad who thought I should dictate the program. But I quickly learned a vital lesson: listen to the women. Learn from them about their abilities, desires and priorities. There was no shortage of women in the neighborhood who needed to work and earn. Their husbands often were unemployed or working at menial jobs such as rickshaw drivers or laborers, where the earnings were irregular and never very much. The women had to make do with whatever portion their husbands gave them. Often this barely covered food for the family, let alone new clothes or medicine or household improvements. The women dreamed of being able to pay for not only these necessities, but also for what they considered a prime goal: paying for their children, sons and daughters both, to stay in and finish school. The women, however, faced many obstacles. Challenges included a lack of education, as many women had been taken out of school, often for early marriages. They also often had to deal with opposition from husbands, in-laws and religious leaders who did not think they should work outside the home. We began by teaching a very small group of women to sew patchwork by hand, work they could do at home, on their own schedule, and without having to pay for childcare or equipment. We sold the throws at church and home sales in the U.S. Within 4 years our group had grown to over 75 women artisans.
Along the way we refined our product and marketing. We now sell a collection of women’s clothing and accessories produced by the women artisans featuring our own hand-dyed and hand-woven fabrics. The products are marketed through a professional quality catalog and website (Marketplaceindia.com). Sometimes the garments include patchwork, a nod to our origins (and a beautiful way to use up leftover materials). Almost always there is hand embroidery, because it can be quickly learned and done at home, giving new artisan a quick start to earning. We also have reshaped the organization itself. By 1992 the artisans numbered over 120 and MarketPlace was restructured to encompass multiple independent cooperatives. By owning and running their own cooperatives the artisans can obtain marketable skills and develop their leadership potential.
Another lesson I have learned from my experience is that change is complicated and there is no magic button. Earning money is an important part, of course, but it’s only one component of economic and social development for women. Some of these women had never taken a bus, learned to read or been asked for their opinion – ever. Psychologists and social workers at Share, our nonprofit partner in India, collaborate with the artisans to develop programs and provide information and support in any area needed. These range from learning to open a bank account to organizing social activism. The women have learned about their legal rights and health issues. They have performed street plays condemning domestic violence. Programs for the artisans’ children provide academic support, counseling and extracurricular activities to help the kids succeed and fulfill their mothers’ hopes and dreams for the future. The cooperative structure itself serves an important function as a safe place where women find sympathy, encouragement and tolerance as they become more self-sufficient and self-confident.
Today MarketPlace works with over 400 artisans and counting. Our strong sales have enabled us to help establish new cooperatives outside of the urban slums. In semi-rural areas north of metropolitan Mumbai there are few income-generating opportunities for uneducated women. Picking flowers to sell to wholesalers is one option, though their back-breaking work results in very little money. Women in the area have been strongly motivated to organize cooperatives, get training and become productive. They are joining a community of women artisans who have become role models. leaders and mentors in their communities and decision-makers in their families. These women have seen their children graduate and even go on to professional schools. They have used money they earned and saved to buy new homes. Their status at home and the community has risen with their self-respect and confidence. This is more than economic development; it is a cultural revolution in which women have found their voice, power and pride.
Thirty eight years ago 2 women took the initiative to stand up and take control. Since then I have seen hundreds more take advantage of the opportunity MarketPlace offered to assume control of their economic, cultural and social destinies. They are supporting their families, educating their children, realizing their own potential and investing in the future.