Tailoring The Definition of Women’s Empowerment

By Ariana Crisafulli

In an arid corner of the village surrounding Nettapakkam, India, Jayanthi sits at a foot-pedaled sewing machine with three tailoring pupils at her feet.

The pupils sit cross-legged on the floor, hand-stitching saris and chudithars (traditional clothing) as per her instructions, surrounded by the vibrantly hued materials of their work. Jayanthi runs a business fulfilling tailoring orders from neighbors and teaching local women the craft. 

She speaks with sewing pins in her teeth, telling me the tailoring classes are a new enterprise for her—an add-on to the work she does fulfilling orders with materials that her customers bring her. Between her tailoring and teaching work, she brings in about 5,000 rupees per month (about $78). Not bad for an entrepreneur in the rural village. 

Jayanthi started her business with loans acquired through Self-Help Groups (SHGs). In these SHGs, groups of 15-to-25 members—usually all women—pool their savings to provide loans to other members as needed. The loans, with a 2% interest fee, often help members pay for medical bill or home repairs. For Jayanthi, the loan was for a sewing machine.

Her small business was realized through the various services offered by Karunalayam Rural Welfare Society (KRWS), a local NGO and self-help promoting institution (SHPI) that runs a women’s empowerment program. This program assists self-help group members with skills training and advice during the loan application process. Jayanthi paid KRWS a nominal fee for tailoring classes. Combined with her humble sewing machine, she started her business.

But with rampant poverty, where do these savings come from? Many of the village women work in the surrounding rice fields — back-breaking work from 7 a.m. to 12 p.m. in the blazing sun. They receive 200 rupees per day (roughly $3). The women who don’t work contribute to the savings account with their husbands’ incomes. The men agree to give their wives money to pitch in as they also benefit from any loans acquired.

So how many Jayanthis are in these villages creating their own wealth and injecting the local economy with fresh cash? Turns out, not so many. Of about every 10-to-20 self-help members, only one or two uses their loans to bring in more money. Whatever they brought in was usually not enough to counterbalance the burdens of loan money and interest rates.

The loans were often utilized to pay for emergencies, weddings, other events, education for their children, or, in an overwhelming majority, to pay the interest rates on a previous loan.

Even the women who started their own enterprises could not clear enough money to avoid the necessity of loans. I spoke to a woman named Kasthuri who, with her husband, owned a snack shop. The money the shop brought in was less than what the women made by working in the fields. Together, they got by with about 100 rupees per day (about $1.50). While the couple did bring in some business, most of the other villagers had similarly tight finances, and saw no need to purchase superfluous food items. The cycle of poverty meant most villagers could not afford to buy the goods offered by local businesswomen. On top of that, expenses like medical bills or wedding ceremonies far outpaced the revenue that small businesses brought in.

So why go into the business at all? In Kasthuri’s case, health reasons meant she could not do the laborious field work. 

As I discovered, women in rural India owning a business are usually unique cases. In other instances, sons or husbands used the self-help group loan money to start an enterprise where the SHG member ran the counter or developed the products. In almost all cases, the women gave any money earned directly to their husbands.

For all the good the KRWS did in the rural villages, I was initially disillusioned with the organization and their women’s empowerment program. The program was run by men, money was mismanaged, and many of the women were paying money to learn skills that most couldn’t profit from. Numerous activities done in the name of women’s empowerment lacked solidity and used money that could’ve been spent more wisely on practical income-generation projects. This begged the question, why was KRWS providing loans and skills training, but not helping them to generate income? 

The answer required three months of cultural immersion and a determined effort at understanding. In the end, it lay in two distinct categories: financial burden and culture. 

Financial burden and the necessity of certain services left no time for the women to start their own enterprises. Families wanted their children to go to school and get a good education so they could escape the mud-walled homes of their childhoods and possibly secure a government job – a position much coveted by Indians, as government jobs are secure and pay well. But school supplies and extracurricular courses cost money, so the parents needed loans to cover the expenses.

Emergencies also arise that require immediate financial attention. For example, the women who work in the fields don’t receive health care as seasonal work is not covered by government insurance. If one of them is injured with the sharp tools they use to cut the stalks, they need the loan money to pay for hospital services.

The other barrier to women’s independent income-generation is a male-dominated culture that restricts their ability to make decisions and develop their own income. The few women entrepreneur success stories in the village were usually not independently female-run. 

I encountered another woman, Punitha, who worked in a ready-made apparel shop in the village. The shop buys wholesale clothing and sells it for a profit in the village. It’s the only shop like it in town and saves the villagers the hour-long trip to buy expensive clothes in the city. The shop was the brainchild of Punitha’s brother who used the loan money from their mother’s SHG to get it started. Punitha and her mother worked in the shop, and any money the shop made was taken care of by Punitha’s brother.

Jayanthi was a unique case, as she has a Bachelor’s degree in Economics. Not many women, especially in her generation, have the luxury of an education. In the rural society, family and marriage is deemed the top priority. If a woman is highly educated or independently acquires too much wealth, it becomes a burden for her family to arrange a marriage. Very few rural Tamil men want a wife who’s more educated or who holds the title of breadwinner. 

In a society where women must ask permission of their husbands, fathers, or other male relatives before they step outside the front door, problems can arise when a woman has the means to make her own decisions. Financial independence is a threat to the status quo, in which husbands hold power over their wives. Financial independence is a key to freedom.  

It was baffling how interconnected the issues of poverty and gender inequality were. I had left San Francisco thinking independent income could make the women equal players. After all, a self-sustainable woman would eliminate the need for a dowry, minimize the financial burden on her family, and provide her with the means to conduct her own life. But it didn’t work that way. Any money earned went toward the family or was controlled by husbands or male relatives.

But maybe I’m being too harsh. It’s easy for me, with my country’s bra-burning past to take for granted the indignation for worldwide gender equality. Working in women’s empowerment in a country that was as bizarre and foreign to me as a peanut butter and mayonnaise sandwich meant I needed to first discover these women’s views on empowerment and what they wanted to achieve. 

For them, their main priority is education. While their daughters are still not allowed to make their own decisions regarding whom they will marry or how they will steer the course of their lives, the women view the acceptability of women’s education as a powerful force of empowerment, and I viewed it as a first step toward solving gender inequality. Education means being introduced to new ideas outside of village traditions. It means better jobs and the chance to work side-by-side with male peers. It’s a first step toward seeing themselves as equals to men and the drivers of their own lives.

While I sat there with my western views on equal pay for equal work and reproductive rights, these women told me of a not-so-distant past when the only place for a female was in the home. Nowadays, their daughters are going to school and getting jobs. However, it’s still not uncommon to see a Tamil woman with the signature emblems of marriage – toe rings, yellow rope around the neck, kumkuma on their scalp line – speaking perfect college-educated English and destined for a life of child-rearing, cooking, and cleaning.

I believe India will see a major change in women’s rights and roles as they continue to become educated. Jayanthi is a shining example: a rural woman with a Bachelor’s in Economics and the brains and freedom to alleviate the poverty she grew up in. While this generation’s girls are being educated under the thumb of institutionalized oppression, the next generation may see a shift from arranged marriages to love marriages, and the generation after that may see women making their own financial and life decisions. 

To an untrained eye such as mine, these changes were unexceptional ones. But after living and working in close quarters with these women, I could see the texture of a slow and inconspicuous revolution taking place—one that’s quietly seeing women gain on gender equality. But as the course of history reflects, the most important social revolutions have not always been violent, loud, or swift. The revolution of gender equality in rural India may be a quiet one, but it is an inevitable one as the tide of women’s rights sweeps the world along.

Ariana is a writer and world traveler. Her writing covers her three main passions: women’s empowerment, travel, and culture. The beauty of the world is not just in scenic mountain views or turquoise waters; it’s in doing the thing that gets you out of bed in the morning. For Ariana, that thing is stringing words together.

Email her at ariana@thewaywardpost.com and follow her journey on Instagram @surrealife