The Antarprerna Women Collectives: Helping Rural Women to Help Themselves

0
33

Across the globe, the development sector has produced enough evidence to show that changing a community begins with empowering its women. On that front, there is still work to be done in rural India where the labour force participation rate for women lags behind countries in Asia as well as urban India. Women Collectives and Self-Help Groups (SHGs) that draw on pooled resources and capabilities are proven and effective platforms for economic empowerment. The group-based model serves as a supportive base where the women can test and strengthen newly-acquired skills and collectively forge paths towards financial security and independence. 

Starting Up

The Collectives run by us – Head Held High Foundation – operate under Antarprerna, our rural entrepreneurship programme, aim at nurturing place-based economic opportunities. They allow women in a given community to come together for group enterprises, creating sustained income and job security for them – all within the vicinity of their homes.

Our first Collective was formed in Wadi, Karnataka, in August 2019 with infrastructure support (including space and equipment) from ACC Trust. We had a market partner in Meemansa, which upcycles fabric waste into other textile products. Before long, the Wadi group was filling Meemansa’s orders for cloth bags. Mobilising the ten women who were part of the project initially was not easy. Apart from working around logistical roadblocks, the team had to overcome the reservations of the families and the women themselves to get the Centre up and running.

The road to empowering the Antarprerna women involved many hurdles. Productivity was an issue initially until we came up with more efficient ways of splitting up the tasks involved – including cutting, ironing and stitching – between the women. 

Growing Up

Much has happened between then and now. There are four Collectives operational currently – two in Karnataka (Wadi and Chikballapur), one in Maharashtra (Chandrapur) and a fourth one recently launched in Odisha (Rayagada). Together, they include 90 women with skills ranging from sewing, tailoring and hand embroidery to knitting, crochet and macrame. Working an average of seven hours a day, each woman can efficiently manage her time and consistently meet production targets, all while retaining a keen focus on quality standards. As a group, the women are motivated to learn new skills and take on more work.

Each Centre has a trainer to guide them through the intricacies of creating various products. The trainer is vital to the success of each collective. She helps keep the group morale and motivation levels up and encourages the women to set goals for themselves, professionally and financially. Given the rural locations of the Collectives, each trainer regularly solves logistical challenges spanning sourcing, packaging and transportation. Although they started with simple cloth bags, their product portfolio now includes masks, jute and canvas bags, aprons, garments, hand embroidered items, knit patterns for carpets and more. 

Thanks to our market partners, Meemansa, Stitch in Time (a heritage craft unit started by designer Deepa Chikarmane), and Craftizen Foundation (a craft-based skilling organisation), among others, who have supported the women with their orders. The women have generated sustained income while continually upgrading their skills.

Challenges

The road to empowering the Antarprerna women involved many hurdles. Productivity was an issue, initially, until we came up with more efficient ways of splitting up the tasks involved – including cutting, ironing and stitching – between the women. 

During the first pandemic-induced lockdown in 2020 and subsequent restrictions, we had to figure out alternate ways to keep the work going. Pivoting to produce safety masks that were the need of the hour required additional training. With centres closed for an indefinite period, we equipped the women to work from their homes. We set up a milk-run model to drop off the fabric and then pick up the finished masks. Raw material shortages were common with courier services and public transport impacted by the shutdowns. There was a steep rise in fabric material as well. We overcame these hurdles with implementable solutions in the prevailing environment. Once lockdown restrictions eased, the centres reopened for work. The women were divided into smaller groups and shifts to follow social distancing and other COVID guidelines at work.

Following this orientation and experience of working in the Collectives, the women have started taking tentative steps towards starting their local ventures. In Wadi, some of them have taken orders for regional favourites such as jowar rotis and peanut chikkis. In Chandrapur and Chikballapur, the women handle local tailoring orders to supplement their income. There is a substantial amount of peer-based learning and sharing within each group.

Voices from the Collectives

Harshlata is from Ghugus, Chandrapur. When her husband passed away five years ago, Harshlata started working on a farm to support herself, her young daughter and her mother-in-law. Given the seasonal nature of the work, the income from this was variable. It was a challenge to make ends meet with this work alone. She was on the lookout for other opportunities when she learnt about the Antarprerna project. A year after joining, she feels that the project has impacted her life in more ways than one. It has given her financial stability, and she can run the household with the income she makes at the Centre while creating a support system of peers that she and her mother-in-law can lean on for advice and help. She is happy to be a part of the Collective.

Ganga lives with her mother, brother and sister-in-law in Wadi. She is a divorcee who had walked out of an abusive marriage. She had to deal with this stigma. Her family often reminded her of being a financial burden to them. Ganga was able to join the Antarprerna project near her home when a vacancy opened up. She soon became known for being extremely hard-working and was one of the more productive workers at the Centre. As she started earning and contributing to the family, her family began acknowledging her as a valuable member of the household. In a short period, her status changed from being stigmatised to being treated with respect by those around her.

Champa lives in the Khedapada village of Rayagada district, Odisha, with her husband, her three-year-old son, and her in-laws. Her husband works as a vegetable vendor to support the family. Married at a young age and forced to drop out of school at that point, Champa was motivated to learn new skills and become an earning member as well. She had to deal with family resistance to this idea but overcame these with persistence. Following a six-month programme covering various foundational and soft skills (also run by Head Held High Foundation), she joined the newly formed Antarprerna Collective in Rayagada. That has made a huge difference in building her confidence and clarity to go after her goals. She supplements the Antarprerna work with other tailoring orders. She aims to open her very own shop soon.

“There were hardly any job opportunities for us in Wadi. I used to feel bad that I was not able to work outside. Though I knew tailoring, I could not get any customers from the village. Now I feel good having an income. I can support my family and take care of my mother’s medicinal expenses. I hope to see hundreds of women in Wadi employed and economically empowered,” says Renuka.

More than two years after we started in Wadi, the Collectives are well established and the women now possess many core skills along with a greater agency and a sense of optimism about their future. Through the team’s efforts and with the support of committed partners, they have already made significant progress in the journey towards economic empowerment. With further upskilling and access to funds, resources and mentoring networks through the larger ecosystem, they will soon be able to fly on their own. 

Impact

Since the project first got off the ground in 2019, we have mobilised, trained or supported close to 200 women. The cumulative income generated across them during this period is close to ₹20 Lakhs. The team also works with the women to connect them to relevant social security schemes. Until now, this has involved helping them with getting Jan Dhan accounts. These accounts are linked to multiple benefits, including life and accident insurance and financial inclusion through access to banking services.

In addition to craft-based skilling, the women also go through more than 15 hours of General Entrepreneurship Training delivered by our team. The goal is to help them develop the mindset and knowledge necessary to stay the course in self-employment. These sessions cover topics such as the pros and cons of starting a business, investment and cost calculations, profitability, and more. By giving them a view of what is involved, we aim to help them develop the stamina and will to pursue their entrepreneurial aspirations.

Following this orientation and experience of working in the Collectives, the women have started taking tentative steps towards starting their local ventures. In Wadi, some of them have taken orders for regional favourites such as jowar rotis and peanut chikkis. In Chandrapur and Chikballapur, the women handle local tailoring orders to supplement their income.

There is a substantial amount of peer-based learning and sharing within each group. When there is downtime, they watch videos to learn how to make new products such as floor mats, macrame plant holders, decorative door hangings (torans) and more.

These point to a slow mindset and operating shift from dependency to self-sufficiency for the Collectives. Over time, we expect that they can leverage their know-how, skills and increased confidence to organise as SHGs focuses on catering to the home and textile value chains.

 

More than two years after we started in Wadi, the Collectives are well established and the women now possess many core skills along with a greater agency and a sense of optimism about their future. Through the team’s efforts and with the support of committed partners, they have already made significant progress in the journey towards economic empowerment. With further upskilling and access to funds, resources and mentoring networks through the larger ecosystem, they will soon be able to fly on their own. 

Authors:
Chandana TR
Sangita Srinivasa
Chandana TR heads Operations for the Antarprerna Women Collectives intervention by Head Held High Foundation.
Sangita Srinivasa heads Communications for Head Held High Foundation.