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Help for Self-Help: Handicraft Program Helps Indian Women

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On the side of the highway to Bangalore, just outside the temple town of Tiruvannamalai in Tamil Nadu, India, you’ll find a handful of motorized rickshaws congregated around the entrance to a small compound of simple buildings. A few sadhus, spiritual renunciates identifiable by their saffron and peach dhotis, nap on the packed dirt under tamarind trees. There may be a cart piled high with bananas or hand-carved soapstone figurines, and a few stray dogs or monkeys warily eyeing passersby.


It’s a classic tableau in South India. But behind the compound’s gate, there is a success story that is anything but ordinary in a booming country whose rural regions, nevertheless, remain locked in a cycle of poverty. For sale from a colorful and spacious showroom, beautiful handmade bags, cloth dolls, hand-painted leaf cards, and embroidered napkins and towels are among the crafts made and marketed by local villagers.


The Shanthimalai Handicraft Development Society began as a training program of the Shanthimalai Research and Development Trust (SRDT) in 1989. The trust, started by Dr. Hugo Maier and his wife, Anne, is dedicated to the improvement of living conditions and creation of opportunities for the residents of a forty-village area surrounding Tiruvannamalai. Its motto is “help for self-help.” No one needed help more, perhaps, than the women of the area.


Women in rural India bear a particularly heavy burden. Still under the yoke of the dowry system, they also have limited access to education and shoulder the majority of the domestic load. Many rise in the predawn hours to sweep their huts and cook the day’s meal before heading to low-paying, hard-labor jobs. Abandonment and abuse are not uncommon. The situation is even bleaker for widows or women considered unmarriageable, like the handicapped or very poor.


SRDT’s handicraft training programs offered these women skills that would provide meaningful work and financial opportunity. The women learned batik and block printing, embroidery, leaf painting, tailoring, weaving, basket and nylon-bag making, and doll making. Volunteers with Friends of India (now Aruna Partnership), a U.S. nonprofit formed to assist SRDT’s programs, and its German counterpart, Freundeskreis Indien, worked side by side with the women to develop products appropriate for both domestic and foreign markets and to institute quality-control measures. 


Of course, there were challenges along the way. At first, says one volunteer from Winchester, Massachusetts, few of the women could speak English, but “they were fluent in the language of the eyes.” Their strength and grace shone through. “We learned to be more aware without having the benefit of a shared language,” she remembers.


There were cultural differences as well. Volunteer Deborah Cake recalls being dismayed, in the beginning, to find finished cloth dolls in a heap on the floor, covered in lint and dust. She didn’t understand how the women could treat their own work with such disregard. She would dust the dolls off and place them on the low tables that were the only furniture in the room. One day, another American volunteer started to play with the dolls, making them walk and talk and “interact” with one another. The Indian women shyly laughed. The volunteers suddenly realized the villagers didn’t have a concept of “doll.” In households with only the bare necessities, children didn’t have dolls.


Slowly, however, came the change. The dolls were already dressed in beautiful mini saris, but one day the volunteers came in to find the women intently sewing tiny bead earrings, necklaces, and bracelets, and also putting flowers into the hair of the little dolls. “The smiles on the women’s faces were so bright as they held them up for me to see,” Deborah recalls. “The dolls had become their little people.”


As always, growth brought challenges but challenges brought growth. By 2001, over four hundred women were working in eight different village craft societies, selling their handcrafts in the United States, the UK, Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, and Germany, as well as from their showroom on the Bangalore highway and at domestic trade shows. At this point, the founders of Shanthimalai felt the artisans were ready to become independent of their organization. They never lost sight of the goal: to support the villagers in learning to help themselves. The clarity of this vision is one of the things that makes SRDT so unique, for it is exactly at this critical juncture that many charitable organizations fail.


Finding the courage to take the first step was the greatest challenge, but in March of 2001, the artisans formed their own independent umbrella organization, the Shanthimalai Handicraft Development Society (SHDS), to guide the various village craft societies.


In 2002, at the advice of a Connecticut nonprofit called Aid to Artisans, SHDS participated in an extensive evaluation by International Resources for Fairer Trade in Bombay, which examined the society’s work systems, quality-control protocols, and production capacity. Today, the self-governing SHDS is registered with Fair Trade India and the World Fair Trade Organization. These designations have validated the women (and men) who have made a courageous investment in their own lives as well as those of their families and communities.


Celia Jackmauh, of St. Johnsbury, Vermont, coordinates the work with SHDS in the United States. She sells the goods at craft fairs around New England and will soon launch a new Web site. She says people are drawn to their table, in places as far from Tiruvannamalai as Boston and Maine, not just for the quality of the products but for the warmth and sense of community that emanates from them. “The work itself embodies the spirit of the people who made it,” she explains. “You feel it.”


Now SHDS is focused on getting into new international marketplaces and expanding its domestic sales, which constitute approximately a quarter of its business. They would like to see that number grow to more than half. It received a grant from the Indian government to train more workers in palm-basket making, their most popular product domestically. They also want to start incorporating more of their own cultural icons and art into their products. “They have their own trajectory now,” explains Celia, the respect for these women audible in her voice.


The handicraft society is also giving back. Recently it established its own charitable giving program, which provides training, work, and medical insurance for widows and their families, and school tuition for their children. It has also built homes for several of its artisans. The women of SHDS know firsthand, after all, the power of help for self-help.

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