Shabnam Begum is just 17 but owns her tailoring centre. She lives in the Pathananpurwa village of Raipur Gram Panchayat, in the district of Bahraich, Uttar Pradesh.
She not only stitches clothes for people in her village but guides other young girls in the village in picking up the latest styles and designs from the internet. Over the last couple of years, she has earned about a lakh of rupees, while saving Rs 17,000.
When her father, a retailer of betel leaves, admits proudly, “you are earning more than me, my daughter,” a shy smile lights up her face. She is grateful for the opportunity given to her by the community volunteers and Adolescent Programme Coordinator of Aga Khan Foundation (AKF) that came to her rescue after she completed middle school.
There was no scope for further education in her village, and her father was adamant that she would not go 3 km away to Raipur, for the next level of education.
AKF’s Nisha and Rekha spoke to her parents and got her admitted in Nishar Sharief Ahmed Intercollege in Raipur. Simultaneously, she was admitted to the AKF Stitching Centre for a three-month tailoring course at Gambhirwa Bazaar and taken on a cycle by an AKF volunteer. Soon, two other girls from her village joined her, which made the commute easier.
Shabnam, who is in the final year of Intercollege, is a gifted seamstress. She learnt to stitch clothes for women and children. By the time she completed her tailoring course, 12 others were motivated to follow in her footsteps.
Programme Coordinator Seema Shukla points out that providing adolescents with vocational and life skills and making them financially literate is one way of motivating them to pursue their studies. An added benefit is that child marriages are pushed back.
Since the initiation of the Adolescent’s Programme in 2014 in Bahraich and Shravasti districts of UP, 728 girls have learnt tailoring, 95 acquired basic computer skills and 96 girls are earning regular income.
Shabnam pays her college fees of Rs 2,500 a year. Two years ago, she almost got married, but the life-skills lessons made her realise that the legal age for marriage is 18, so she refused to comply.
Shabnam earns between Rs 2,000 to Rs 3,000 a month and during Eid, other festivals and in the marriage season, her earnings go up to Rs 4,000 to Rs 5,000 a month. In fact, at least 36 other girls who have completed the tailoring course are in the same earning bracket.
Since Shabnam has also done the basic computer course, she uses the internet to look for latest designs and adapts those donned by film stars and celebrities. Often, the clothes are embellished with lace that she makes herself.
Guiding young girls in tailoring, she often does the cutting without charging a fee.
She also stitched an exotic wedding outfit for the daughter of her father’s friend, accepting only Rs 100 as her fee, although it cost her Rs 3,000. In the village, “people don’t pay more, however grand the dress,” she says.
She has also stitched an expensive lehnga set for herself. Since I am earning my livelihood, I can indulge in such luxuries, she says. Seema Shukla has been trying to get bulk orders like school uniforms for adolescent tailors, but Shabnam wants to move on. She is in discussions with big shops in affluent city areas, for the sale of outfits she has designed as well as hand-embroidered bags.
Shradha Mishra of Dharmanpur village, like Shabnam, did the AKF three-month tailoring course in 2015. Just 18, she is the pride of her village. For the last year and a half, she has been running Usha Silai School and has already taught cutting and tailoring to 40 girls and one woman. With the support of AKF, she has completed a seven-day training of trainers (ToT) course from Usha Silai and followed it up with refresher courses, each of five days, for giving a professional finish to outfits, cutting and stitching different necklines and using foam in dress-making.
Like Shabnam, she is not only computer-literate but has learnt to design on a computer. Simultaneously, she is pursuing her graduation. As a product of Usha Silai, she has brand value and displays their board outside her sewing centre.
Shradha has made all the investments for her Centre–where she began with one sewing machine, she now has three. The Centre is teeming with young learners and proud villagers.
The six-month course she offers is priced at Rs 200 per month. All her students have bought sewing machines and work from home. One of them wants to emulate Shradha and run a Silai School. In addition to teaching, Shradha does commercial tailoring, earning Rs 1,000 to Rs 1,500 additionally, every month. She specialises in making jazzy blouses for weddings and special occasions.
In the 1.5 years of starting the Centre, she has earned close to Rs 40,000, with Rs 17,000 in her bank account. She has also bought a buffalo calf for Rs 7,000 because she wants the family to drink milk and improve their health. It is being looked after by her uncle, but she sees it as an investment for a better life. After completing her graduation, Shradha plans to run a boutique in Bahraich city.
Not only is Shradha the first girl in her village to run a Silai School but is also the first from the AKF Adolescent Programme to run a franchise school.
In collaboration with Usha Silai School, AKF has promoted 20 satellite tailoring schools. All of them are running six-month courses and have collected a training fee amount close to Rs 2 lakhs.
The adolescent programme runs alongside the women’s empowerment programme through Self Help Groups. Close to 150 SHGs, most of them wives of the migrant labour of Bahriach and Shravasti, have learnt to keep records of money collected, taken on leadership roles while engaging in income generation activities.
The Renu Bachhat Samooh of Subharpurwa village, Chhittaura block of Bahraich, dreams of challenging the male farmers of the region.
The SHG has taken land on lease and is growing wheat and rice, competing with the more experienced male farmers. A dozen members of the SHG had just harvested six quintals of wheat on the 1.5 bighas of land this April and were jubilant.
Registered as an SHG in 2016, it got Rs 15,000 from the UP Rural Livelihood Mission as a revolving fund. It was soon invested on leased land for share-cropping.
Having worked as farm labour, the women know the intricacies of farming and are capable of hard work. Like other farmers of the Chittaura block, they were encouraged to practice wheat and rice intensification systems of line plantation for improved yield. Guljara, President of the SHG, says the women did the sowing, the irrigation and the de-weeding. They used the fertilisers required, finding time between household chores and farm responsibilities.
As share-croppers, they are to share half of the six-quintal harvest with the land-owner. The wheat has not yet been sold, but with prices ranging from Rs 1,500 to Rs 1,750 a quintal, they hope to get Rs 4,500 to Rs 5,250.
However, there will be no resting on laurels for these women. They plan to take at least another bigha of land on lease to extend their farming prowess and reap in more dividends for the samooh. Till the land-owner repays the Rs 15,000 they had paid him for the use of his land, they can continue to cultivate it.
With each woman contributing Rs 100 to Rs 500 every month depending on how much she can spare, the samooh has Rs 49,740 in its kitty while Rs 17,000 is due as interest on loans given out.
Further, the women invest their earnings in buying goats, with each woman owning three to four goats.
With some hand-holding and direction, adolescents, as well as woman SHGs, have shown their mettle to nurture big dreams.
(Written by Usha Rai and Edited by Shruti Singhal)
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