This article was published in EGMP Magazine, November 16, 2019 on the occasion of the EGMP, IIM Bangalore summit.
If you invest in a woman, you invest in the whole family. According to Master Card Index of Women Entrepreneurs-2018, India ranked 52 out of 57 countries
That’s a lowly 52, only 5 countries are behind India. This rank shows the women entrepreneurs’ ability to capitalise on opportunities offered by their local environments is very poor . Indian women, need to have an equal participation in every part of the economy, and not just the part where the educated has a play. It is also that part of the economy which is not driven by education but by skills; mostly those which have been passed from generation to generation. It is also, typically that space which lacks a well-developed ecosystem, and the participants primarily depend on their family for support. The women participating in this space has an additional challenge – as they usually lack the skills to monetize their skills.
Given that the rural economy in India is largely agrarian, coupled with the harsh reality of an unpredictable crop due to various reasons, an unpredictable situation of poverty can be avoided by having an additional source of income for the household, ideally engaging the women who have some spare time beyond their household chores.
A woman who earns an income is almost always likely to spend the money on her family, such as on her children’s education or their nutrition, or in acquiring an asset. And this is where a woman’s livelihood creates a cascading social impact.
If a woman has a relevant skill and wants to create an income for herself she should be able to, with some support. In India, there is no lack of talent when it comes to women, especially with some of the traditional skills handed down from generation to generation – such as handloom weaving, painting, embroidery, craft making etc
Take Handloom weaving as an example - out of the total handloom weaving done in India, a large percentage, to the tune of 70% of the actual work is done by women, being the preparatory and post weaving jobs like spinning/ reeling, bobbin making, calendaring etc- leaving the designing, choosing of the raw materials and final weaving to the males. However, women have no equal right in the share of the income, leave alone any share of the recognition. Also, because of the patriarchal mindset in villages in most parts of the country, women even though they are talented enough to create a masterpiece on their own, are not encouraged or given enough support by the males in the household and in the society, and remain largely untapped talent.
Because of this, women are at a fringe in this creative process, and the ones who are interested to use their talent and create an income of their own are discouraged from taking it forward, leave alone getting an opportunity. Thus the vicious cycle starts and women are relegated to just doing odd jobs, left without an opportunity to cash in on the demand for beautiful handloom.
A significant portion of the GDP is also lost because of women who have relevant skills, are not being able to be part of this process of creation. Alongside, the society loses an opportunity to create sustainable, eco-friendly livelihoods and reduce migration to urban cities, where livelihoods are vulnerable. Also lost is the chance of building social equity in the family, and an enabled next generation.
So where is the opportunity and how do we change the trend?
For the last seven years, we at Heeya, have created a model of working with women weavers in the North Eastern region (primarily in Assam). In this region, the gender inequalities are less pronounced and women are traditionally skilled in weaving, which is a cultural practice that starts at a young age for girls. Here every house has a loom, made locally with wood and bamboo, without any mechanical devices attached (like the Jacquard), which allows them to weave free hand and express their art. Women have traditionally been creating textiles such as gamosa, a hand towel that is used in daily life; and some other textiles for their daily use or for a very small local demand.
The team at Heeya saw an opportunity for these women to make a better income for their skills and thus set out to creating an idea for textiles that could be sold to an outside world. The women were empowered to select yarns, designs, motifs and creating the final product. Their products, primarily high quality sarees, mekhela sadors, fabrics and accessories have a market across the world, with significant end user recall.
Heeya has supported about 500 women weavers in three clusters. These women who just had a skill of weaving but not exposed to making high quality products have over a period of time, had been able to create an income for themselves, and augment their family income.
This has been possible due to a strong focus on the products, namely hand-woven sarees and accessories like scarves, stoles etc.. These are the products they never woven before, but are now have a market across the world
All of this required significant interventions with well thought out strategy and execution plan. Our focus have been to help these women get a well-rounded support towards creating an income for themselves and establishing themselves as entrepreneurs
The broad strand of the strategy can be summarized as follows which also map to the :
- Skill analysis of women weavers – understanding strengths and weaknesses
- Design and implement interventions as per above– training, hand holding, financial awareness, product design, sampling and pilot
- Creation of a strong market - positioning through personalized storytelling for the products
- Create local eco system for raw material sourcing
- Selling products at prevailing market rates to new markets - also allow women to sell locally (to create accessible markets)
- Financial and social support though funds and community support available through local co-operative group
- Ensuring that the tenets of fair trade practices are followed at every stage
The model of the above 6 pronged intervention has helped a skilled base of women have a first time income of up to Rs 10, 000 per month. It has helped them prioritize the spending – to educate their children, on health and nutrition of their families, and/or to acquire assets. Very importantly, it has helped them plan for the future as they have the assurance of a sustainable income and established them as local entrepreneurs.
At the collective level, it has helped preserve the local art and heritage, and make each participant a proud ‘creator’, thus having a high self esteem and confidence in themselves. Also, this local entrepreneurship has done away with the need to check to urban places for a livelihood. Lastly, it has created a livelihood which is set in a cultural, ecological and community context.
It is our mission to create more livelihoods for women, which will empower thousands of women who are waiting to escape the cycle of poverty and deprivation, to do their bit for the environment, and lend to the cultural heritage by offering products and services. If we extend our hands to creating this virtuous cycle of responsible production, sustainable livelihoods by women, while satisfying the world’s need for ethical consumption, we can tick off many desirable boxes.
In doing so, we can fulfill some of the most creating sustainable developmental goals laid down by the United Nations such as Gender equality, Responsible Consumption and Production, and Reduced Inequalities, while help in the pursuit of a better world