When I began Mi Dulce An’ya, I was very excited to create a socially progressive company. Just using fairly traded, organic cotton was not enough… there had to be more. India is a massive country with so many people who need help. And I felt that I could do something, however insignificant in the bigger picture. Educating the top of the pyramid on the merits of switching to organic cotton was going to be an interesting challenge, but reaching out to the many at the bottom of the pyramid seemed much more fulfilling.
I got in touch with one of the ladies I had been introduced to at a women’s empowerment event, who ran an NGO working with physically challenged young women. With her, the women were making bags from newspaper and magazine pages and barely earning anything. But the important point for them was, at least they were earning those few rupees a day. They had a range of physical limitations, some had basic prosthetics and others not, but all of them were earning an honest living for themselves and not being dependent due to their various conditions.
I interviewed and explained the kind of work I had in mind. But I recognized that the work wasn’t the issue- it was the idea of taking public transport and the 5 minute walk from the Metro station to my unit that was more of a challenge. So only 9 of the ladies, who had less significant mobility issues elected to come work for us.
I personally trained them on every activity I wanted them to do- from making embellished felt hairclips, to sewing buttons to doing ‘kantha’ embroidery on the garments. And they embraced each activity with great enthusiasm. Two de facto team leaders were selected who took charge, picked up each skill quickly and helped the slower ones get upto speed. The only thing I made clear from the very onset was, I would give them a fair wage and working conditions but since none of them had any problems working with their hands, there would be no discounting in expectations. I set the same standards as with other able-bodied members of my team, and the same sense of accountability and responsibility. I think this was the only fair way to make them a part of the Team, without other members feeling there was preferential treatment being meted to some.
One of the women, Anwara, left after she got married and moved to a different City. But the other 8 are still with us. Jaya, one of the 2 team-leaders, aged 40, is the most determined, conscientious and soft spoken of the lot. She smiles radiantly at me every morning and even though she speaks a Bengali Dialect that I don’t follow, we have managed to figure out how to manage with minimal conversation very nicely. She is such a perfectionist that everyone’s work has to meet her standards before it is even showed to me. I love it! She nurtures the younger lot and has the respect of everyone in the unit. Ruth, aged 50, the other team-leader, is very loud but equally determined and kind. She has had some basic education, and can speak a few words of English, so she is often the spokesperson for the group. Ruth is a very strong advocate of women’s rights and complains bitterly to me if she feels one of the girls is being inappropriately treated at home by their family (read husband/ father/ mother in law). As such, she is the undisputed agony aunt of the group.
The others, Chhabi, Sheila, Payel, Sujaya, Rani and Anjani are all lovely and each have an interesting story. I’ll share their stories another day.