Usha Silai School: Empowering Rural Women for Economic Independence

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Women in India face challenges due to gender discrimination, societal norms, and limited opportunities. Traditional gender roles and patriarchal standards have historically limited women’s access to education, work, and leadership positions. Despite progress, barriers to women’s education, workforce participation, and leadership remain. In recent years, there has been a growing awareness of the need to empower Indian women, with brands well-positioned to lead this transition. Women’s empowerment is a moral necessity as well as a strategic investment in the nation’s progress. 

Usha International displays this commitment through its Usha Silai Schools to empower women in rural regions by encouraging self-sufficiency, stable earnings, and increased family contributions. These schools have changed lives by providing opportunities for women to gain self-confidence and advance in their careers. In an interview with CSR Mandate, Mary Rupa Tete, Vice President, Usha Social Services, Usha International, sheds light on Usha’s effective efforts in uplifting rural women across India.

What is the larger aim behind Usha’s Silai School initiative? Could you elaborate on the importance of supporting women to start their microenterprises in remote villages?

The aim of our community-based, pan-India rural initiative of Usha International Limited (Usha), the Usha Silai School initiative is to skill women in sewing and cutting and support them in setting up their self-sustaining micro-enterprises. We started the initiative in 2011 to empower women in remote areas of the country and foster sustainable community development to build a more inclusive and prosperous society.

Women from marginalised communities often struggle to support their families financially due to a lack of resources and have little or no say in the communities. Once trained, and running micro-enterprises of their own, these women become confident, and self-dependent, and ensure sustainable livelihoods for their families. 

We launched the first few Silai Schools in multiple locations like the Nilgiris and Kancheepuram in Tamil Nadu, Gulbarga, and Chamraj Nagar in Karnataka, Hardoi and Unnao in Uttar Pradesh, Kokrajhar and Kamrup in Assam, Banswara and Jaisalmer in Rajasthan, to name a few. Women from these communities were predominantly engaged in farming and labour work with no permanent livelihood at all. When they were provided with an opportunity to have an alternate livelihood option through sewing, which is also a creative and engaging hobby, they were more than happy to be a part of the initiative. Some of them shared that learning and honing their abilities made them feel more capable, and independent, and instilled a sense of confidence in them.
Phemo Manham

Phemo Manham, a member of Arunachal Pradesh’s Woncho tribe, shifted from farming when she joined the Shomai Self-Help Group at 19. To supplement her husband’s income, she embraced traditional crafts. Discovering the Usha Silai School programme through AIDA, she established her Silai School, with the help of the village panchayat. She started with 11 learners, earning Rs 4,000-5,000 monthly, gaining independence, and securing her children’s future. Her journey exemplifies how the Usha Silai School empowers women through entrepreneurship for a brighter future.


Where were the first few Silai Schools started? Could you share the reaction and feedback from some women when they were presented with this opportunity to empower themselves through tailoring?

We launched the first few Silai Schools in multiple locations like the Nilgiris and Kancheepuram in Tamil Nadu, Gulbarga, and Chamraj Nagar in Karnataka, Hardoi and Unnao in Uttar Pradesh, Kokrajhar and Kamrup in Assam, Banswara and Jaisalmer in Rajasthan, to name a few. Women from these communities were predominantly engaged in farming and labour work with no permanent livelihood at all. When they were provided with an opportunity to have an alternate livelihood option through sewing, which is also a creative and engaging hobby, they were more than happy to be a part of the initiative. Some of them shared that learning and honing their abilities made them feel more capable, and independent, and instilled a sense of confidence in them.

These women started their own Silai Schools after acquiring the relevant sewing skills and had greater control over their lives with flexible working hours enabling them to balance their household chores and income-earning opportunities. It also brought in a lot of changes in the social dynamics, making them participate in decision-making processes related to family and participation in community events. They started venturing out of their villages for additional opportunities, carved their own identity and started contributing towards the well-being of the other women in their village.

Mary Magh 
Mary from Kohima, Nagaland, faced job challenges after graduation. She tutored and took a local dressmaking course. Facing financial hurdles, Mary joined the USHA Silai School programme through a local NGO. After excelling in training, she received a Usha sewing machine and certificate. Back in her village, Mary set up her Silai School, charging Rs 200, and taking dressmaking orders; expanding her income and reach. In a year, she trained over 20 girls and women. She aims to establish a design house and boutique, showcasing the power of determination and skill development for a brighter future.


How many women and lives has the initiative impacted so far?

Currently, we have more than 32,000 Usha Silai Schools located throughout India’s 28 States and 8 Union Territories. We have reached a vast number of rural, non-electrified communities throughout the country with our Silai School initiative in a short span of twelve years. With the assistance of more than 87 local NGOs, we have been able to make a difference in the lives of over 11 lakh women today. We have also partnered with several organisations for government/private collaborations.

Prebina Marak

Prebina from Mendegre, Garo Hills, Meghalaya, learned sewing skills after discontinuing her education post-Class 12. Following her husband’s passing in 2017, she faced financial hardship. In 2018, she discovered the Usha Silai School programme.
After training in March 2019, she bravely opened her Silai School in April, using innovative designs and techniques, earning Rs. 200-300 daily. Prebina trained 24 learners and contributed to her community by making and distributing masks during the COVID-19 pandemic. She envisions a brighter future, aiming to establish a production centre and expand her marketing efforts. Her determination and creativity have transformed her life and community, paving the way for prosperity.
The East India Fashion Week is amongst the best platforms to promote regional participation and the perfect forum to enable our women to showcase the wonders they can create with a little bit of mentorship. It also highlights the amazing talent pool of female entrepreneurs in the country’s Far East, praising their achievements and inspiring them to pursue new projects. For the latest edition of the East India Fashion Week, ten Usha Silai School women Were selected to work under the mentorship of five designers.


Turning eastward, what is the reach of the School in North East India?

We have 3106 Usha Silai Schools in the eight States of North East India, and the number of women whose lives we have touched through these schools is approximately 1.78 lakhs.

The following is the latest State-by-State distribution in the Northeastern region:

Arunachal Pradesh – 185, Assam – 1559, Manipur – 351, Meghalaya – 274, Mizoram – 158, Nagaland – 101, Sikkim -130, and Tripura – 348.

Our associated NGO partners in the region are Anma Integrated Development Association (AIDA), Arithang Neelgagan Development Society (ANDS), Bethany Society, Centre For Development Action and Appropriate Technology (CADAT), Deshbandhu Club, Gramya Vikash Mancha, Pacific Club, People’s Development Society and Rural Volunteer Center. 

Kalpana Debbarma

Kalpana Debbarma is from Tripura’s indigenous Tripuri tribe. She learned stitching from her husband. To boost her family’s income and support her children’s education, she attended a Usha Silai School training programme in 2022. Equipped with new skills, she started her own Silai School at home, increasing her monthly income from Rs. 4,000 to 5,000 by teaching four students. Grateful for Usha’s support, Kalpana now manages her business from home while contributing to her family’s income. Her journey demonstrates how skill development and entrepreneurship empower individuals, inspiring her community to pursue a better future.


Share a background about the East India Fashion Week initiative. How many women from the region are associated with this project?

In the past (between 2017 and 2019), we collaborated with well-known designers wherein the Usha Silai Women have been part of two Lakme Fashion Weeks where their creations have been showcased on the ramp. The intent was to provide rural women with a platform where they could confidently demonstrate their abilities and further hone their skills as they worked with some of the best-known names in the fashion world who are also passionate about empowering women and environmental sustainability. Therefore, their creations, along with the Usha Silai School women, featured local weaves and materials, traditional craft techniques, and inculcating age-old designs with a modern twist. 

The East India Fashion Week is amongst the best platforms to promote regional participation and the perfect forum to enable our women to showcase the wonders they can create with a little bit of mentorship. It also highlights the amazing talent pool of female entrepreneurs in the country’s Far East, praising their achievements and inspiring them to pursue new projects.

For the latest edition of the East India Fashion Week, ten Usha Silai School women – Moirang Salam Thoibi Devi and Elangbam Surbala Devi (Manipur), Dharitri Kalita, Rinki Das, Pallabi Borah and Pinkumoni Devi (Assam), Lalita Rai and Durga Rani (Sikkim), Ramngaihpuii and Lalthianghlimi (Mizoram) were selected to work under the mentorship of five designers – Nandini Baruah and Meghna Rai Medhi from Assam, Tsering Dolma from Sikkim, Arbin Tonjam from Manipur, and Escape Engmoia from Mizoram.

As an intrinsic part of the programme, women are trained in sewing and stitching and provided with an entrepreneurial kit at the initiation of their training. This kit includes a Usha sewing machine, a sewing course booklet, a sewing machine servicing manual, a training certificate a Silai School signage, and a curriculum in the local language. This enables them to start their micro-enterprise – Usha Silai School after the training. We provide the above kit free of cost to the women, as only women who are economically weaker and marginalised are included in this initiative. The cost of the project is picked up either entirely by us, in the case of our in-house Classical Silai School initiative, or sometimes by a partner organisation that wants to undertake the noble initiative in their area of interest with our support.

Lalita Rai

Lalita from Agrigoan village, Sikkim, faced financial challenges due to her husband’s meagre income as a farmer. An opportunity arose when she attended a nine-day sewing skills training programme through a partner NGO. Equipped with a Usha sewing machine, course materials, and signage, she opened her Usha Silai School, significantly increasing her family’s income. This transformation allowed for better food, improved education for her children, and respect.
Her hard work and positive attitude led to a collaboration with a regional designer and a chance to showcase her work at the EIFW. Lalita’s entrepreneurial journey, from poverty to recognition in her community, boosted her self-confidence and brought immense joy to her life.


How is Usha focused on improving the state of female entrepreneurs across India’s rural and rural-urban regions?

Through Usha Silai Schools, we aim to create long-term opportunities for rural women and highlight their earning potential all across India. This initiative is a testament to our commitment to rural women’s entrepreneurship and women’s empowerment.

As part of the initiative, these rural women are chosen with the assistance of NGO partners who are already present in the areas and working on tackling various socio-economic issues in their area. The women selected for the training typically come from impoverished homes, and/or experience social exclusion due to their socioeconomic position, physical disabilities, or are from disaster-affected areas.

We provide a learner-friendly, nine-day residential training where we teach women sewing methods, pattern cutting, sewing machine repair and maintenance, as well as life skills. Upon completion, we provide them with support material such as Usha Silai School signage, a service manual, a diploma, and a curriculum in the local language.

As we have reiterated earlier, our Usha Silai School programme aims to facilitate economic independence for women from marginalised communities by equipping them with relevant sewing skills, knowledge, and resources, therefore enhancing their overall socio-economic status. Hence, as an intrinsic part of the programme, women are trained in sewing and stitching and provided with an entrepreneurial kit at the initiation of their training. This kit includes a Usha sewing machine, a sewing course booklet, a sewing machine servicing manual, a training certificate a Silai School signage, and a curriculum in the local language. This enables them to start their micro-enterprise – Usha Silai School after the training. We provide the above kit free of cost to the women, as only women who are economically weaker and marginalised are included in this initiative. The cost of the project is picked up either entirely by us, in the case of our in-house Classical Silai School initiative, or sometimes by a partner organisation that wants to undertake the noble initiative in their area of interest with our support.

To secure long-term viability and impact on women’s livelihoods and empowerment, the Usha Silai Schools could focus on the following strategies entrepreneurship training, continuous skill development, networking, and collaboration – government and corporate support, sustainable outlook, and technology integration. With this help, Usha Silai Schools can secure long-term viability and continue to have a positive impact on the livelihoods and empowerment of women in rural areas.
Dharitri Kalita
Dharitri, from Assam, a hobbyist sewist turned full-time professional through Usha’s Silai School Programme, found solace in sewing when her husband passed away from cancer. Certified by USS, she taught embroidery and stitching to over 70 women, earning the nickname Usha Baidew/Didi (sister) in her village. Her hard work led to her completing her own pucca house.
Dharitri was handpicked and mentored to create clothes for the EIFW runway, adding to her accomplishments. This experience not only enhanced her skills and income but also provided valuable insights into the industry.


Do you provide additional skills or resources to the women, beyond what you mentioned above, to help them achieve greater success?

The women get ongoing assistance from the local NGO partner to establish their own Usha Silai School in their home, which includes enlisting the help of the neighbourhood and mobilising students and local market connections. Our Usha Silai School staff routinely observes and assists the women in raising their subsistence income via sewing, teaching sewing techniques, and sewing machine repair.

How do you encourage and promote creativity and innovation among the women who establish their enterprises with your sewing machines?

We are among the rare companies that are not only walking the talk but walking that extra mile to create a better future for every life we touch. Women require a supportive and empowering environment for creativity and innovation to flourish, and that is the very essence of the Usha Silai School programme. The programme offers a comprehensive training platform for women to enhance their sewing skills and knowledge about different fabrics, colours, designs and techniques. This also boosts their confidence and opens up avenues for creativity. The programme ensures access to high-quality sewing machines, tools, and materials which in turn improves the quality of their products and encourages women to wear their imaginative caps.

We have also designed a mobile app called UshaSilai, which is available free of cost at the Google and Apple stores. This app is available in 12 languages so that women from villages from different regions can access it, learn, and earn from it. The app has a wide range of content from repair and maintenance of sewing machines to garments and accessories. We upload new content every week as per emerging fashion trends. Women can also reach us with their queries related to sewing through this app. Our association with Lakme Fashion Week and East India Fashion Week are excellent examples of the same.

Elangbam Surbala

Abandoned by her husband, Elangbam Surbala from Manipur, found empowerment in sewing. Through her Silai School, she has taught over 150 learners, thanks to Usha’s practical training, project staff support, and assistance from a local NGO. Collaborating with North East India’s top fashion designers in the East India Fashion Week by NIFNDC is a dream realised for Surbala. She aims to seize this golden opportunity and share her newfound knowledge and experience with other women in her village, furthering their empowerment and success.


How will you secure the programme’s long-term viability and impact on women’s livelihoods and empowerment?

To secure long-term viability and impact on women’s livelihoods and empowerment, the Usha Silai Schools could focus on the following strategies entrepreneurship training, continuous skill development, networking, and collaboration – government and corporate support, sustainable outlook, and technology integration. With this help, Usha Silai Schools can secure long-term viability and continue to have a positive impact on the livelihoods and empowerment of women in rural areas.