Fans, home appliances and sewing machines are everyday objects that we do not necessarily notice but make our lives exceedingly convenient.
In India, Usha International leads the pack in manufacturing these products. Aside from resounding success in this segment, it has also been running a community-based initiative empowering rural women residing across many villages to become entrepreneurs since 2011.
Through their Usha Silai Schools, this initiative has taught embroidery, tailoring, sewing and stitching on black handle sewing machines (and learning to repair them) manufactured by the company to thousands of rural women, and set them on the path of financial independence and entrepreneurship. In partnership with 53 non-profits, the company has helped start over 15,000 Usha Silai Schools across the country.
“Through this initiative, the company has trained women entrepreneurs from the villages in their local vernacular, provided them with a sewing machine, and a Silai School signage, besides encouraging them to teach other community women the art of stitching and sewing” says Dr Priya Somaiya, Executive Director at Usha Social Services, speaking to The Better India.
Since its inception in 2011, more than 2,84,000 women have completed their course at Silai Schools, and nearly 14,000 more continue to get sewing skills training every day from these schools.
Teaming up with local non-profits, Usha International sets up Silai schools in some of the country’s most remote corners. What these non-profits do is help Usha select 10-12 village women from a particular village or area with the necessary motivation and desire to join their programme. These women undergo intensive and rigorous training in embroidery, sewing and stitching on black handle sewing machines for 70-80 hours over the course of just one week.
“The emphasis is on imparting practical skills to these women, and these lessons are taught in their local vernacular,” says Dr Somaiya. After these women complete the programme, the company issues a certificate, Usha sewing machine, syllabus and Silai School signage to these women. These recent Silai school graduates then teach and train other women from their village for a nominal fee.
“The Satellite Silai Schools are set up by the learner of the Silai school teacher at the village level after they complete 70-80 hours of training at the Silai school over a period of three months. The Silai school teacher supports her better learners to set up the satellite school. This is the ripple effect,” says Dr Somaiya. Since these new batch of learners cannot spend long hours outside, they usually carve out an hour or two from their domestic lives each day for three months.
This entire process is about creating new livelihood avenues for these village women who have not necessarily had the benefit of a formal education. Besides charging a nominal fee from other learners, these graduates also receive job orders (making petticoats or other necessary garments) from their neighbourhood or nearby villages.
There is only one condition that Usha sets on these newly-minted graduates—they cannot sell the sewing machines given to them on completion of their training programme. “The potential for distress sale is high, but if they sell the sewing machine then the entire Silai school programme falls apart,” says Dr Somaiya.
In skilling these women, the initiative seeks to break the vicious cycle of poverty they undergo. “Imagination, creativity and necessity are the pillars which drive rural women in this initiative,” says Dr Somaiya.
Take the example of Irudaya Mary from Thiruvandarkoil village near Puducherry. Before enrolling in a Silai School, she was dependent on her in-laws and others to meet basic household needs. With her husband unable to keep a steady job, life was especially hard.
After finishing the programme, she decided to set up a Satellite School. Thus far, she has trained 55 learners, and on an average earns Rs 15,000 per month.
“I am utilising my Silai School income to meet the family’s day to day household needs and my children’s education. I also save a portion of this income in a bank account,” she says. With a steady source of income, she has also expanded her Silai School place. This is helping her train more learners.
With more than 15,000 such schools running, of which 95% of them are functioning, the beneficiaries of this programme earn anywhere between Rs 1800 to Rs 45,000 per month.
Sometimes women from the second rung of learners are so good at their work that Usha also facilitates another intensive training course where they can scale up their sewing skills.
In the past one and a half years, Usha has taken this initiative a step further with Usha Silai—a sustainable fashion label. Through the launch of this label, women from four of their clusters in Rajasthan, Bengal, Gujarat and Puducherry are being empowered with skills and resources to create clothes and accessories for retail in the urban fashion market.
These four clusters are in Kaladera (a village near Jaipur), Mastikari (a village near Kolkata), Dholka (a village near Ahmedabad) and Puducherry. Besides embroidery, sewing and stitching, these women are taught design, size standardisation, finishing, and labelling. In these four above clusters, Usha engages professional designers, who impart concepts, patterns and style.
“In essence, Usha International through this initiative is stitching the rural and fashion world together,” says Dr Somaiya.
Take the example of Raziaben Pinjara, a physically challenged woman from Dholka who was living out her days managing household chores before enrolling in a Silai School. With her husband eking out a living as an auto driver, the family was in a precarious situation financially.
After undergoing the one-week intensive training programme, she opened up a shop and is now earning on an average Rs 6000 per month. Last month, she was one among the eight women who participated in last month’s Lakme Fashion Week. “It was nice to be able to go there. We didn’t know we could ever make such fashionable clothes,” Raziaben told India Today.
The Usha Silai label made its presence felt at the recent Lakme Fashion Week with an emphasis on ‘sustainable fashion.’
Models adorned the clothes made by women at these clusters. In fact, two women from each cluster were invited to walk on the ramp with their respective designers, and Raziaben found herself in the limelight.
“In the midst of so much pouting and indulgence and glitter and made up inspirations and recycled silhouettes that sell, there are such stories like the collaborative project with Usha Silai that can redeem fashion as just a pursuit of vanity and money, and to survive gracefully, fashion needs narratives of change. India, with its repertoire of textiles and crafts, could be the leader in slow fashion,” said this India Today report on Usha Silai’s moment in the Lakme Fashion Week.
Speaking to The Better India, Dr Somaiya adds, “The clothes we made reflected old traditional colour combinations. We witnessed an integration of ethnic colours and contemporary garments, and this created a stir in the fashion world.”
She goes on to add that in April, Usha Silai will launch its retail label for sale though Ogaan, a Delhi-based online fashion store for women. All the money generated through the sale of these garments under the Usha Silai label is channelled back to these women.
This is an attempt at not only creating avenues for a better livelihood but also long-term economic opportunities and a place for them in post-liberalisation India, which has so often left them behind.