Progress and Churidars by Aleta Haflett

July 13, 2010

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Four women huddle together on the temple floor, talking loudly and excited amongst themselves while they examine a pair of churidars, measuring and sketching as they speak. A second, simpler pair of the leggings lay discarded a few feet away.

I catch pieces of the conversation, basic words like “stitch” and “cloth,” and Jignesh, my translator, fills me in on the rest. “They say they can already make the simple pair, easily… now they are discussing the best way to make pleats, and if a drawstring or elastic waistband is best.” He then translated the most rewarding statement I have heard in my five months of work- “They say they can do it, definitely.”

These were completely different voices than I had heard the week before, voices that had doggedly insisted that they needed a trainer, that they were “too empty in the head” to use a pattern on their own, let alone design one. Now, after fifteen minutes with a pair of churidars in their hands, they were busily cutting away at the pattern they had sketched on old newspaper. By next week, they tell me, each woman will have made a pair of the fancy, fashionable leggings, and will bring them to the meeting.

I first met these women of Sagetada in March, while I was holding focus groups for Self-Help Groups that had participated in a skills training hosted by my NGO, Human Abilities Employment Development Society (HEADS). Though I would visit seven villages, in the end it was in Sagetada- a mid-sized village in the Sarada block- where I would root my project.

Ultimately, my project would involve seven women who were operating stitching businesses in Sagetada. The women have a range of skill and educational levels, and their businesses are diverse, both in size and success. Inspired by the idea of SHG’s as social capital generators, and SEWA’s strategy of grouping women together into occupation-based unions, I approached these women about the possibility of forming a group just for tailors in their village. The group would provide a platform for women to discuss their businesses, brainstorm solutions to challenges, and learn from one another. In the beginning, there would be some more formal training in business development, but the ultimate goal was to create a place for members to solve their problems as a team.

That brings me back to the temple floor where we sat cross-legged, gathered together on ricesacks stitched together into a type of mat. Last week, when discussing demand and how to find out what customers want, the group mentioned a desire among women in the village to have “fashionable clothes,” like churidars and more elaborate kurtas, that no one in the village knew how to stitch. The group insisted that if they learned to make these items, they would receive many orders from their community. When we talked about ways they could learn to stitch these items, the first response was to bring in an outside trainer to teach them. We discussed the strengths and weaknesses of a trainer, and decided that a more sustainable way to learn new designs was to learn to make patterns from pre-existing garments. With some trial and error, and a lot of practice, the group would be able to create any article of clothing they could imagine, using only material from their community.

As our meeting comes to a close, the group members make suggestions of what they want to learn next week. It is decided we’ll first share stitching experiences, and then talk about setting prices. Sharda ji, the current facilitator of the group, establishes the day and time for the next meeting, changing the day from Tuesday to Thursday to account of a marriage taking place in the village. She tells me of the change, and we agree to meet, as we always do, an hour before the meeting to go over the agenda and create discussion points.

Sharda ji is a natural leader, the president of one of the village SHG’s. Her big dark eyes radiate a quiet confidence, and she has a way of facilitating discussion amongst group members that ensures every member feel comfortable speaking. She is responsible for gathering the women together, for facilitating discussion, and for leading whatever activity has been planned for the day. When I first approached her about being the initial leader of the group she was hesitant, but now, after more than a month of meetings, she assumes the role with the same easy energy she exhibits when chasing her two young children through her joint family home.

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It is this home, which she shares with nearly a dozen family members, that she invites Jignesh and me for chai after the meeting. Over sweet, milky cups of tea, she gives feedback on the day’s session, and we brainstorm ideas for next week. I’m thrilled when she tells me that the women decided to meet a few days later, without me, to compare progress on their stitching. It’s the most convincing sign so far that the group will continue to meet and support each other after I have completed my internship and am back in America. When our cups are empty, I catch the bus to take me the 55 kilometers back to Udaipur. The bus is as overcrowded and noisy as always, but I barely hear the din. Jignesh’s words are still ringing happily in my ears: “They say they can do it, definitely.”