Society Columns

Progressing, stitch by stitch

Saroj Namdev, 36, of Satlapur village, Raisen district of Madhya Pradesh, is a housewife and mother of three. She struggled to provide her children food and education on her husband’s small income. Then he lost his job and the family was reduced to penury. This pushed her out of her cocooned existence to become an entrepreneur.  

Saroj, who had completed Std. X, was in the first batch of the Silai School Project of Usha International Ltd (UIL) at Govergunj, in 2012. With her tailoring skills, Saroj worked out of home and contributed to the family income. After a seven-day course, she could cut and stitch a range of garments including blouses and salwar-kameezes and also repair sewing machines. Gifted with a basic sewing machine, a signage of the company and a Hindi manual on tailoring, Saroj began working from home and, as mandated by the company, taught tailoring to 10 students for a monthly fee of Rs.100 for the six-month course. She also took tailoring orders and repaired sewing machines.

Today, Saroj Namdev is an icon in Satlapur. She has trained 35 students; five of who have opened their own schools. After marriage, two have opened schools in their marital homes. Those taught by her have trained another 25 women, so there is a cluster of schools and networking among the young entrepreneurs. Saroj’s 18-year-old daughter, who dropped out of school, has also joined the workforce as a tailor.

With career options opening up for modern women, there is tendency to look down on sewing as an old-fashioned way of empowering women. But, as studies of the Silai Schools show, professionally run with NGO support and monitoring at various levels, village women tailors operating out of their homes are confident and economically liberated.   

In Dewas district, where 15,000 women have been liberated from scavenging, 50 women are being rehabilitated through tailoring with financial support of UNDP and technical support of UIL. Across India, HIV-positive women, transgender and the disabled are being rehabilitated through Usha Silai Schools. Till the end of 2014, there were 5,542 Silai Schools in the country; with Rajasthan leading with 519, followed by West Bengal (467), UP (446) and MP (403). Based on the UIL syllabus, the trained teachers teach others for a fee that varies from Rs.30 to Rs.300 a month to augment their income. While Saroj charges Rs.150 a month and plans to raise it to Rs.300, in Tamil Nadu, Metilda Mary in Viluppuram district, charges Rs.1,000 a month. Her average monthly income is around Rs.14,000. In December 2014, she became the highest earner of the Silai Schools taking home Rs.21,500. She now plans to raise her income further, investing in embroidery and zig-zag machines.

A certified teacher, Saroj earns between Rs.5,000 and Rs.8,000 a month. During wedding and festival seasons, she works round the clock to meet orders, making Rs.800-900 a day. Her target is to make Rs.12,000-14,000 a month through bulk orders like stitching school uniforms. “I have earned in lakhs,” she says with justifiable pride. Through her earnings, she has constructed a modest three-room home with one room for tailoring classes. She is the proud owner of a computer, a television and three sewing machines. Because of home responsibilities, she could not train as a master tailor, but her husband now has a regular job as a crane operator and her sons are going to a private school since she can afford the fees.

Saroj is just one of the 32,000 marginalised women across 29 States and five Union Territories that the Silai Schools have empowered. Even before the CSR concept of using corporate profits to boost the lives of the marginalised took shape, UIL decided to reach out to remote/non-electrified villages of the country through the Silai Schools.

The Silai Schools have raised the self-esteem of women within their own family and in the community. Many women who did not have any say in their family are today key decision makers. Sulochana Nagar of Devatiya village of Raisen District, MP, runs a Silai Centre earning Rs.4,000 a month, and also works as an ASHA (Accredited Social Health Activist). Sulochana says, “Earlier I had to ask my husband for money and he would scold me. Now I earn my own money and spend it. I am not dependent on anyone.”

Sushila Singrauli, 32, who also runs a Silai Centre at her home in Ambai village, does not earn as much as Saroj or Sulochana because her home and village are isolated. With the daily wage rate for labour in her village at Rs.200, there are few takers to learn tailoring, paying Rs.50 a month. She earns less than Rs.1,500 a month but the confidence she has acquired through the Silai project has enabled her to become a sahayak (helper) in the anganwadi earning Rs.2,500 a month. When a rival got a stay on her appointment, she filed an RTI to prove that, having completed Std. X, she was more qualified for the job than the woman who had finished Std.VIII. Her husband, who initially was against Dalit women coming to learn tailoring in the house, is now supportive and even gets her the latest designs.

Harish Kumar, who looks after the Silai Schools project for UIL in MP and Chhattisgarh, says it has not been easy to make inroads into tribal pockets. In Sarguja district of Chhattisgarh, tribal women wear an unstitched sari and do not see the need for the sewing machine. However, with the opening of schools in tribal blocks, there is now some interest in stitching school uniforms.

However, the residential training period of seven days for those starting the Silai School Centres seems inadequate for newcomers. There should be more refresher courses and a large team of master trainers to support the project. The joy of stitching would be enhanced if marketing skills are provided to these rural women entrepreneurs.

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Printable version | Nov 30, 2021 6:41:39 AM |

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