Sew now, reap later

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Satyagyan Foundation nudges women into entrepreneurship through their ‘Stitch Your Future’ initiative

Life has dealt Anuradha a tough hand.

Raised in the slums of Varanasi, the 28-year-old suddenly found herself heading a household when both her parents passed away. With no formal training or job, she needed to care for her younger siblings and was forced to ask an uncle for support.

Now that’s changing. After learning how to read, write and sew, Anuradha makes a living selling salwar suits and sari petticoats. And she’s planning to open her own boutique and learning centre to pass on her skills.

Anuradha gained her education free of charge from Satyagyan Foundation, which teaches women basic literacy and vocational skills, and helps them start small businesses.

The non-profit is now gearing up to expand, opening 11 new sewing centres which will equip more than 300 women in the area with tailoring skills, thanks to an Australian Government Direct Aid Program grant. The ‘Stitch Your Future’ initiative will see Satyagyan team up with USHA International, which is providing equipment like sewing machines, and Grameen Vikas Sansthan.

“Investing in women is not just the right thing to do — it’s the smart thing to do,” said Australia’s High Commissioner in New Delhi Patrick Suckling while launching the initiative in Varanasi in March.

“I’m proud that the High Commission can play a role supporting outstanding NGOs which promote economic empowerment through projects like this,” he said. “Increasing progress towards gender inequality is a key priority in Australia’s foreign policy and aid program.”

Satyagyan founder Sunita Kohli told the Indian Sun that basic education and skills training were life changing for women living in the patriarchal society of Varanasi, in Uttar Pradesh.

“The type of woman that we help is normally living in an urban slum or in the very close environs of Banaras,” Kohli said. “She would be married, even if she’s 18 or 19, she’s already produced two kids, [and is] on her way to having her third kid,” she added.

The reality of the women’s lives hit home for Kohli when she started organising kabbadi tournaments for Satyagyan graduates; the idea being that playing the rough and tumble Indian wrestling game would give the women confidence and break down patriarchal ideas about what women can and can’t do in life.

“Everybody was stunned to … [discover] that almost 90 per cent of the girls who were playing kabaddi were married and had children,” Kohli said. “Almost all of them come from very, very patriarchal backgrounds, were the woman are only supposed to remain in the house and not have access to literacy or access to going out, leave alone playing kabaddi,” she added.

“Kabaddi becomes a very empowering thing for them because it is an expression of freedom and of being equals to men,” she explained.

Kohli said that at the end of Satyagyan’s six-month training course, the vast majority of graduates go on to start their own businesses, and more often than not become the main breadwinner for their family.

And once they have had a taste of education, “they are the ones that carry the ambition that their child, they must be educated”, Kohli believes.

Australia’s Direct Aid Program grant will provide the sewing centres’ with teaching and sewing materials, sewing machine maintenance costs, rent for workshop space, and the transportation of supplies.

To help women manage their extra income and savings upon graduation, Satyagyan will also set up self help groups for women, if there is demand from graduates. Once these groups have raised sufficient capital, the women would be guided in taking out micro-loans to start their own businesses.

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