How this handicraft cooperative is helping revolutionize India

A decade ago, women in this rural Indian community were doomed to lives of poverty and domestic abuse. Now, thanks to their entrepreneurial spirit and courage, they’re changing their destinies, one stitch at a time
By Leah McLaren; Photography by Catherine Farquharson
How this handicraft cooperative is helping revolutionize India Nirmala happily sews with her coworkers and friends

Nirmala Lohyar is 32 years old and has a schedule as jam-packed as that of a typical Western working mother. She just happens to live in the small village of Sisvi in rural Rajasthan, a province in northwest India.

Every morning, Nirmala wakes up at 5 a.m. and makes a pot of tea. Then she milks the cow and prepares breakfast for her family — usually chapatis and vegetables — before making sure her kids (a 17-year-old daughter and two sons, 15 and 13) are dressed and off to school. Only then does she open her shop (one room attached to her house) and begin stitching piecework for Sadhna, the women’s handicraft enterprise she sews for. Around 5 p.m., once the kids are home, she closes up shop, feeds the cow, then gathers wood to make a cooking fire. After that, it’s time to whip up the evening family meal, usually more chapatis and vegetables; then she’s off to bed — so she can wake up early and repeat the whole shebang the next day.

Her husband, she says with a laugh, is not much help around the house. And while her routine might sound exhausting, for Nirmala it’s a vast improvement on her situation a few years ago. Before she found work at Sadhna, she tells me through a translator, “we had nothing. No machine for sewing, no wheat grinding machine for making bread to sell in the shop.” She proudly shows me around her sparsely furnished, two-room abode — despite its diminutive size, it’s actually one of the biggest homes in the village.

“Now that I have my own work, everything is different,” she explains. “People say, ‘How do you do it all?’ and I tell them, ‘I get my energy from my heart.’ Now that I have my own money, I just want to work harder and make more and more!”

Here in rural India, having work outside the domestic sphere is a rare privilege for women — one that has changed the equation for Nirmala and countless others like her.

How this handicraft cooperative is helping revolutionize India  

Her village, Sisvi, is located in the arid hills of Rajasthan, about two hours south of the city of Udaipur. It is an astonishingly beautiful place, cupped by distant mountains and skirted by fields of blazing yellow mustard seed swaying dreamily in the warm mid-winter breeze. The village itself is a small collection of rudimentary buildings coiled around a Hindu temple and a Jain temple. A dusty, rock-speckled path serves as the village’s main drag.

“The Backward Castes”
Sadhna, based in Udaipur, began its outreach to rural Indian women over a decade ago. Its parent organization, Seva Mandir, is supported by Plan Canada.

Today, roughly two dozen women of all ages sit cross-legged in the Sisvi village square, chatting amicably while drinking sweet chai tea from small cups. Spread over their laps is a bedspread made of undulating silk in rich jewel tones. The women work quickly, embroidering intricate designs, licking their coloured threads and passing them deftly through the needles’ eyes, biting off the loose ends with a delicate nip of their front teeth and working the needles back into the material again. It is painstaking, meticulous labour, with dazzling results — the intricate embroidery for a single king-sized bedspread takes them up to one week.

All of the women in this circle are married to men their parents selected for them, in some cases in childhood (though most did not have to assume their wifely duties until their mid-teens).

They are part of a system that city dwellers I spoke to referred to as “the backward castes” — a reference to their strict adherence to traditional ways of life. Eleven years ago, this village was a place in which women were not allowed to leave the house or be in public without being accompanied by their husbands. They were not allowed to wear footwear in the presence of men. Indeed, many, including Nirmala, still veil themselves when walking in the street.

It was 11 years ago that Gita Suagh, the 50-year-old Sadhna group leader, decided to go and seek help for her village.

Journey out of abuse

Gita was married off at the age of nine, along with her older sister, in a double wedding (because of dowries, many poor families have double weddings to save costs). When she was in her teens, she came to Sisvi to live with her in-laws. At the time, she took comfort in a local saying about marriage: “Whoever your parents select will bring you great happiness.”

She looks at me with a pair of enormous brown eyes. She has a kind, pretty face that is aged only by her lack of teeth.

“In fact, that was not true,” she tells me through a translator. “My husband was a drinker. He beat me and didn’t give me any money. He was very controlling and jealous. I was not allowed to talk to people outside the family, not allowed to leave the house or wear shoes.”

Gita endured this state of affairs in silence until her husband’s drinking worsened to the point that he could no longer work. He went to bed and didn’t get up. They had three children at that point, no work and no money between them.

Then Gita did an extraordinary thing. She had heard that Seva Mandir helped village people in her region learn new skills when there was drought and hunger. She decided to go to it and ask for help.

“I went and said, ‘Please give us something so we can work — come to our village and help us,’” she recalls. The agency put Gita in touch with one of its women’s employment initiatives, Sadhna. As Gita recounts, “Sadhna came back and said, ‘Bring us your women.’ ”

Changing men’s minds
While Sadhna is now a fact of life in Sisvi, when the organization started employing women in the area, the male elders protested. Allowing women to be employed, even at home and in private, was a great disruption to village life and traditional customs. According to Gita, the elders held a meeting and said to the organizers at Sadhna, “Why are you ruining our women?” But eventually, when they saw their wives bringing income into the home — with work that allowed them to keep performing their domestic duties — the men were forced to relent. “The men don’t complain so much, because they are seeing the bonuses of the extra money and school fees for the children. Now we don’t ask them for money because we have our own,” says Gita.

To illustrate the point, a few women in the sewing circle lean forward and extend their arms and necks to show off gleaming gold bangles and dangly earrings. For poor Indian women, jewellery is more than just luxury decoration — it acts as a solid asset and, by extension, symbolizes financial independence.

“We have realized that if we don’t have our own money, we will always be in a bad position,” says Nirmala. “We will never be in that position again.”

According to Plan Canada, of the roughly one billion people in the world who live in extreme poverty, 70 percent are women and girls. It’s a situation that prompted the charity to launch its successful Because I Am a Girl campaign back in 2009 — a global initiative to change the lives of women and girls through education and community development work.

How this handicraft cooperative is helping revolutionize India  

Since then, Plan has launched initiatives around the world to invest in the futures of women and girls — enterprises like Sadhna that, they believe, are the shortcut to eradicating the spread of extreme global poverty.

Profit for the people

The NGO Seva Mandir is headquartered in a leafy suburb in Udaipur. The organization was founded in 1968 as an education centre and now employs over 300 people who do outreach and development in some 70,000 households in Udaipur and the surrounding area. Its head office, consisting of two large cement buildings, one of which houses a public library, was constructed in the mid-’70s with the help of a number of donors, including the Canadian International Development Agency.

Entering the building, we are greeted by a group of gentle voiced women in richly coloured saris and ushered into a large boardroom. With me are representatives from Plan Canada as well as Mark Cayen, the marketing director for Olsen Europe, a fashion label and one of Sadhna’s major partners (more on that later).

Neelima Khetan, former CEO of Seva Mandir, is a mild mannered but commanding woman in her 50s wrapped in a peacock-blue sari and matching cardigan. Sadhna, she explains, is one of Seva Mandir’s most successful programs, not only because it works to improve the lives of women, but also because it is a self-sustaining business. This notion of giving women real skills and employment to help them help themselves (rather than relying on handouts) is at the heart of Seva Mandir’s philosophy. “Some non-profit organizations believe that government is responsible for everything, but we believe citizens are equally responsible,” Neelima explains. “Rights are important, but citizens are not just rights holders, they are duty bearers. We do whatever we must do to strengthen people’s capacity to work for themselves.”

Seed financing
At present, Sadhna counts 681 women as employees. Last year, it saw a 24-percent increase in orders, and productivity also rose sharply, with each artisan producing, on average, 22 percent more than the year before
If it doesn’t sound like your average charity, that’s because it’s not. While Sadhna is not run strictly as a for-profit business — women are paid for piecework and share in the profits at the end of the year, bringing in roughly double what they’d make selling the goods on their own — it is a business model that works. The collective survives because, in addition to engaging in strategic partnerships with corporations like Olsen, it also supplies big international retailers, such as Fabindia at home, Target in the United States and Monsoon in the U.K.

The challenge facing Sadhna these days isn’t profitability, but how to expand without watering down its philosophy. As Neelima puts it, “Do we just want to grow and have 6,000 women working for us, or do we keep it a social enterprise?”

For Mark Cayen, marketing director of Olsen Europe, Sadhna’s fine balance between commerce and charity is what made it appealing as a partner in the first place. In 2009, European-owned Olsen launched its first Double Happiness campaign along with Plan, an initiative that partnered with Sadhna to produce appliquéd details, beadwork and embroidered items that are then incorporated into a special Olsen line. For three years running, Olsen designers have visited Udaipur to teach Sadhna workers how to make these specialty items. The skills, Neelima says, are “important for helping our artisans to understand what people in the West find fashionable.” The line, Mark says, has proven to be a commercial success back home. Five percent of the proceeds goes directly to Sadhna. The idea, he says, is to create a sustainable, long-term difference for workers in the developing world, rather than just donating a portion of profits to charity, as so many other organizations do.

According to Mark, the best analogy for Double Happiness is an old proverb: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will never go hungry.“

At a Sadhna workshop outside of Udaipur, 30-odd women ranging in age from 19 to 45 sit at machines, sewing yesterday’s piecework into tomorrow’s bedspreads, pillowcases and garments. They work intently, tape measures looped around their necks, and manage to chat without ever taking their eyes off their work.

The room is filled with sunlight, fresh air pours in through open windows, and in the corner a pot of incense emits a cumin-scented smoke in front of a small portrait of the Hindu elephant god Ganesh. The women here work side by side, regardless of caste or religion — a revolutionary concept in rural Indian society.

It is a pleasant work environment by any standards, a nice surprise in a manufacturing hub known for child labour and sweatshops.

But just because Sadhna is running smoothly doesn’t mean life is always easy for the women it employs. Even positive change comes with growing pains.


Painful repercussions
Yashoda Lohar, 35, is a former Sadhna group leader who was, for a few years, one of the organization’s rising stars. When she began working for Sadhna several years ago, she was unhappy in her marriage. Her husband, like Gita’s, was a drinker. In Sadhna, she found both a source of independent income and a sense of purpose. Her work as a group leader took her not just out of the house but out of the village to pass out piecework and deliver finished items. Over time, Yashoda struck up a relationship with a man in a neighbouring village and ended up having an affair. When her husband found out, he fell into a deep depression. She broke off the relationship, but it did no good. Her husband, she says, was in the throes of mental illness by that point. He was angry at her, at Sadhna and at the world. Late last year he committed suicide, hanging himself from a tree outside the village and leaving Yashoda a widow and single mother of two teenage boys.

According to local custom, she must now live with her in-laws and not go out in public for a minimum of one year. This mourning process might be marginally less painful if relations with her late husband’s family were not so strained. She receives a small widow’s pension from Sadhna, but the family doesn’t approve. “My in-laws blame Sadhna for my husband’s death,” she says, brushing away a strand of premature grey hair peeking out from under her head scarf. “But I know that he did what he did because he was very ill, not because of Sadhna.”

Will she return to work full-time again? Yashoda isn’t sure. For now, she is focused on her sons. “I am trying to find them both a match to get the dowry money,” she explains.

Neelima, who is familiar with Yashoda’s sad predicament, says the domestic situation often shifts once a woman takes a job for the first time: “Sometimes a woman’s style of dress changes to a more Western style, sometimes she might travel across the country and see places her husband has never seen. This changes the dynamic within the home.”

For now, she says, the organization is doing its best to support Yashoda, both financially and emotionally. But it’s not easy. “We are very involved in these women’s lives, but there is only so much we can do.”

How this handicraft cooperative is helping revolutionize India  

A brighter future

In an inner-city slum in Udaipur, a large group of some three dozen women sit on the roof of a half-constructed building, embroidering a bedspread for Sadhna. Around them children play and chase one another, and a mother nurses a baby while she works. Everyone drinks chai tea.

Two years ago, the building the women are sitting on did not exist. With the extra income they earned, they were able to pay for the materials to construct a permanent home — the place where they all now live. Conditions are cramped — a two-room flat sleeps a family of seven — and hot water and electricity are hard to come by, but for these women, who have spent most of their lives in a shantytown, owning a permanent residence is like owning a palace.

As the sun begins to sink, some of the women wind up their threads and go downstairs to start dinner for the group. “We like to live this way because we can share everything,” one woman explains, continuing her cross-stitch. “We eat together, we talk together, we take care of each other’s children. If one of us is sick, the others do her chores.” She looks down at the bedspread and admires her work. “And because of Sadhna, now we have a job together too.” They are now each other’s keepers.

Photographs: Second image, Gita, one of the older members of Sadhna, was married off at the age of nine; Third image, Durga putting together an applique for women's clothing brand Olsen; Fourth image, Women sewing on the rooftop of the house their hard-earned money allowed them to build.


Subscribe to our newsletters for our very best stories, recipes, style and shopping tips, horoscopes and special offers.

By signing up, you agree to our terms of use and privacy policy. You may unsubscribe at any time.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.