Sushma Iyengar did not only help the women of Kutch in Gujarat get back on their feet after they experienced natural calamities, she also helped them become more empowered than before.
Gujarat has seen many natural calamities in recent decades — from cyclones to droughts to a crippling earthquake. These disasters disrupt the natural course of life for everyone but affect the lives of marginalised communities the most.
It can take years and years for poor people to recover in such situations. But 42-year-old Sushma Iyengar helped many of the women in Gujarat convert these calamities into opportunities to become self-dependent and earn better livelihoods than they had before.
Sushma studied Development Communications at Cornell University in the US. But, her passion to work with marginalised women and communities, along with her love for India, brought her back to Kutch in Gujarat.
“I felt I belonged here and if I had to start something, it had to be in Kutch,” she says.
When Gujarat was fighting a severe drought in the 1980s, women suffered the most because family members, especially the men and youth, migrated. So they began to use their embroidery and handprinting skills to try and make ends meet in whatever little way they could.
This is when Sushma set up Kutch Mahila Vikas Sangathan (KMVS) in 1989. The organisation does not only help the women’s work reach bigger markets, but also empowers the women to become leaders and changemakers.
Besides handicrafts, KMVS works in several areas — credit and savings, health, education, natural resources management, and capacity building of women village heads.
Gujarat, especially Kutch, has a rich tradition of handcrafted embroidery, patchwork, and many other decorative items. So the government had set up a corporation to procure these handcrafted products. And in the years following the drought, special purchases were made to provide relief to many of these communities living in the interiors. Soon, the focus shifted on quantity rather than quality and the women were encouraged to do mass production instead of making unique, one-of-a-kind products.
This is when KMVS intervened. Under an initiative called QASAB, Sushma and her team started to revive the traditional craft while also providing the women with livelihood means.
The artisans of KMVS re-organized as producer groups to manage their activity as artisan entrepreneurs, designing, producing and coming to the market with their crafts under the name of QASAB. Over 1,200 artisans are currently working under QASAB. The returns from QASAB products go to the craftswomen and any surplus is re invested in the development activities of the initiative.
Women who earlier used to sell their beautiful handcrafted products to middlemen at low prices are now part of a collective where they demand what they deserve.
As the number of women in the collective grew, the middlemen were eliminated and rural women, who were earlier just daily wage earners, became skilled entrepreneurs.
Sushma helped the local artisans market their crafts.
“The idea is not to provide a temporary solution but to empower them in such a way that they can look for their own solutions and that’s what they are doing now,” says Sushma.
Another initiative that has benefited the rural women of Kutch is Saiyere Jo Sangathan (SJS). This ‘Collective of Women Friends’ serves over 4,100 women in 54 villages in western Kutch. Set up with the objective of making women socially and economically independent, SJS empowers women by developing traditional livelihoods like dry land agriculture and animal husbandry as sustainable economic options.
KMVS is also helping women get access to financial resources along with creating opportunities for women who are involved in traditional forms of livelihood like crafts, music, and breed/seed conservation.
“We don’t want to just help a particular community associated with us but to change the entire industry of artisans,” she says
KMVS also runs a community radio station, which is entirely managed by rural women in the village of Nakhatrana. The radio station gives women and communities an effective channel to communicate issues of their concern and safeguard their traditional arts.
Sushma’s efforts took another turn when a severe earthquake hit Gujarat in 2001. She started an initiative Kutch Nav Nirman Abhiyan which brought together over 40 organisations to spearhead the reconstruction work in the community.
She focused on traditional housing and enabled people to work with the local panchayats to solve problems.
Women effectively helped in directing and organising relief supplies, keeping accounts and ensuring equal distribution during the relief process.
With the help of her team, Sushma set up 33 information centres called ‘setus‘ in affected villages. These setus acted as a bridge between villagers and the government — providing a flow of data, feedback and information to influence policy and programmes. They also acted as a link between all the actors in relief and rehabilitation.
Staff at setus would give details about the death toll in the villages, progress on temporary and permanent houses, the amount of financial assistance received, the formation of village councils and women and youth committees, the training of masons, and support for artisans.
These setus did not just provide people immediate and material benefit but also made them aware of their rights and what the government could do for them.
Having worked with the people of Gujarat for over two decades now, Sushma has created thousands of leaders and hundreds of small initiative, which run on their own now with her expert advice.
KMVS, which was started as a small initiative, now runs without direct intervention from Sushma. The third generation of leaders are handling the initiative and have launched several new projects.
“KMVS has thus grown from a single collective of rural women to a network of many grassroots women’s organzations, operational across Kutch district, and comprising more than 20,000 women leaders/managers/livelihood practitioners,” says Sushma.
Sushma now plans to continuously connect with other organisations and bring a larger change in the lives of the people of Gujarat. Check out this website for more details.