The morning is in full swing at a bustling business.
Sitting in the middle of the room, Kashvi is crocheting colorful yarn into egg-shaped balls that will become owls and octopi. Next to her, Eva is sewing a handbag from cloth with a delicate floral design set against a white background. Near the window, Anaya has stopped sewing a pocket into a handbag to examine the design of a layered necklace made from recycled sari cloth. Her fingers run the length of a strand of cloth beads before stopping to prod at an individual bead. “There must be something wrapped inside of this,” she observes aloud before passing it on to the next seamstress for consultation. In their own casual - but expert - way these women are reverse-engineering products like this necklace all the time.
The business is a not-for-profit business started by the staff at Shalom, an NGO working with HIV/AIDS-affected families, transgenders, and anyone requiring palliative care. A not-for-profit business turns all of its profit back into good for charitable organisations. The business takes that model one step further by hiring all of its seamstresses via referrals from the hospital where Shalom works. All of the women sewing there have been somehow affected by life-altering illnesses and their salary allows them to provide for their families.
Geeta and Sunita were already working for Shalom in some of its charitable projects when they were tasked with establishing Kiran. They had no business experience, but both had been playing with sewing and tailoring since childhood, making them the most qualified Shalom staff to start the project. Sheeba joined Kiran last October to oversee the business.
“NGOs talk a lot about starting income generation programs,” says Sunita. “But they need to actually do it. It’s more challenging. In an NGO, you just teach and give to people. But here, we expect something back from them. They have to work.”
The change has also been uncomfortable for Shalom staff members. Before this, Sheeba was working with churches in a traditional ministry role. Now she spends much of her day overseeing inventory, pricing, and tracking sales. In the beginning it was a difficult transition. However, she’s slowly come to appreciate aspects of working in a business setting. “We’re with these women every day, offering them a chance to provide for their families,” she reflects.
No one currently working for the business knew how to sew when they were hired. Everyone is learning new things. They’ve each been trained, slowly adding to the designs they can make. When they began, they were assured they wouldn’t be fired if they learned the required sewing too slowly. This allowed them to relax into the job. At the end of their first year, a seamstress is given a test to see how well she can make each design. If she passes, she’s given a small raise.
Geeta and Sunita are responsible for all of the designs. They find ideas at exhibitions or online and then deconstruct the examples to work out how to make the product.
As their seamstresses have gained experience, their designs have gotten more complicated. Now their products have expanded beyond their initial cloth handbags and coin purses to include drawstring backpacks and harem pants. Work on a certain design is shared by anyone who knows how to make it.
Working here hasn’t just meant these women have a place to earn money. For some of them, working in this business setting has reignited their ability to dream about their futures.
In a back corner of the room, Larisa is sewing one of the business' simplest designs – a coin purse. Her ruler is attached to her desk by a long strip of scrap cloth. “I was wasting half the day looking for it!” she laughs.
Larisa was referred to the business when she came into Shalom’s hospital without anyone to provide for her. She’d spent her marrying years caring for her brother’s family. However, when she was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer, they abandoned her. After surgery, she began working to provide for herself. Learning sewing has given her an even bigger idea.
“I’m going to learn this so well and start my own business,” she says excitedly. “And every time I make money, I’m going to give a part of it to someone who’s in a bad situation like I was. I’m going to become such a good businesswoman that hundreds of people will come to me and even my family will notice.”
Larisa’s experience of abandonment isn’t unusual. The illness that most of these women deal with personally or in their families causes a lot of stigma. They cannot be open with their communities or, sometimes, even their extended family members about what they’re dealing with.
Because its roots are in an NGO, the human resources practices are more gracious than would be expected at a regular business. The work environment has been carefully developed around being open and supportive.
“When I come here, all my troubles seem far away,” reflects Mishka, as she adds the straps to a handbag. She recently had to take three months off because her health had gotten worse. She was grateful to find her job waiting for her when she could come back. At the traditional garment factory jobs a woman like Rita would normally be forced into, a job held for a sick employee is unheard of.
“This is not like working for a factory,” nearly everyone affirms about Kiran’s unusual culture. “We’re a family.”
The family experience here is nowhere more evident than at lunch time. Everyone sits in a circle on the floor and opens their packed lunch – some variation of vegetables and rice. Lids are passed around as people give and take a portion of one another’s vegetable dish.
As the women eat, one woman shares about a fight with her husband the previous night. Sheeba shares how what she’s been studying in her church’s small group might apply to her situation. Someone else chimes in with her experience of domestic violence.
Another woman talks about her forthcoming trip to her home village and bemoans the fact that the government hospital hasn’t given her enough medicine for the long trip.
“Well, you’ll just have to come back early,” another group member advises. “You can’t stop taking the medicine. That is really bad.”
For many of these women, this is the only place they can be open about all of their challenges and receive love and knowledgeable advice in return.
Just like their beaded necklace or harem pants designs, their workplace is deconstructing and putting back together what it means to run a business and think about ministry at the same time. They’re creating an environment that provides for and supports women who are facing huge challenges. And because of these commitments, they can produce not just beautiful clothes and accessories but dreams.