The Face behind the Bag – Part 1

Behind the hustling sounds of traffic of Anna Bus stand in Madurai city is a quaint, traditionally rich but a predominantly low-income settlement called Madhichiyam community. Walking through the crisscross lanes of the community, praying to gods along every turn, at the far end of a street, one can find an age-old building that is now a production unit for cloth bags – Tulasi. The unit which came into action two years ago with 4-5 women from the neighborhood has now grown into a 15+ women workforce.

Every woman has a story that they rarely tell out, facing struggles head on, holding on to one asset called hard work. Lets get the women talking!

 

   Shanthi, a mother of two, is one of the oldest members to move from home tailoring women network to Tulasi unit. “I had to travel at least an hour to collect the fabric to stitch and spend another hour to return back. After joining Tulasi, I now earn a steady wage which I use for my kids’ education.” With a husband who has become non-existent to the household, Shanthi has tried everything to keep her family afloat. “There is not a place in Madurai where I had not searched for a job. I was once into a  gardening job at a hostel, where I used to indulge in back breaking work for half an hour and spend the next half an hour on the stitching table. I have not stopped developing this skill since then.” It is not just work, but also the workplace that has made the difference to this tough mother. “Although I spend many sleepless nights worrying about my children’s schooling, the moment I get down at Goripalayam bus stand I feel my worries ebb away. I want the company to grow much bigger and wish to see 100 more women like me to come here and earn with happiness.”

  With an alcoholic husband, it was a financial battle every day for  Selvi, who found herself in deep debts as she tried to run the household. “It is been 2 years since I joined this unit and I am proud that I was able to repay atleast 75% of all loans. This financial freedom has also made me confident about admitting my kids in a better school inside the city.” With freedom came the responsibility to spend consciously and she is more grateful for realizing the same. “These days I have developed a self-discipline to save money which has made me efficient in handling crisis. Previously, even when my kids fell sick, I would wait for my husband to take them to hospital. But now I step out confidently and no longer feel intimidated to talk to strangers.”

  A workplace inside a community means an excuse to step out of homes for work  for many women like Panchavarnam. “I have a little problem in walking, so I don’t usually go outside for work. I saw a company coming up here and I offered if they would need someone to bring in tea. One day, I was asked to help in screen printing  and as days passed, I developed the interest to learn all aspects of cloth bag making and eventually learnt them too.” For Panchavarnam, there is a greater reason to work than just money. “I have never been treated as a sub-ordinate and the way in which everyone was doing every other job and considered equals motivated me to come to work.” This has also led to some serious self-realization set in. “While I was at home, I knew only cooking. But after coming here I have realized I am capable of learning various skills and execute them professionally.”

  Another woman from the neighborhood, Sophia, had  also joined the company owing to its proximity to her house. “We lost a lot of money due to the failure of business my husband had set up and fell into a deep trap of debts. Although he works in a company, his salary gets sucked up in repaying these debts. It is with my salary that I take care of household expenses  and  my kids’ school fees. Paying bills has not only set her free financially but also emotionally. “When I was a housewife, I was rarely consulted especially in monetary issues. Now even friends of my husband ask him to consult with me before shelling out money and this I believe is a sign of respect I have earned within my community.”

 Surya’s reason to join the tailoring unit is one of conviction to prove her husband wrong. “At home there used to be lot of fights due to financial distress and I have even thought about committing suicide fearing debts. My husband used to say ‘You cannot earn even a rupee and you are useless’. Now I have shown him that I can earn not just a rupee but enough money to pay my son’s school fees.” However, it was not an easy decision to go to work with safety being touted a hurdle. “I had joined here only because it was an all-women working environment and felt safe enough to come to work. The work environment here gives me respect and to me earning money with dignity is the sole reason to continue working here.”

We hear these stories of struggle, hardwork and hope and this Women’s Day  we want the world to hear from them directly. Share this post widely!

Tomorrow, we bring stories from another production unit – Thiruvalluvar. Stay tuned!

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