Anyone who has had the fortune to travel to India will know the bittersweet nature of the experience. On the one hand, there is the beauty and magic of the country, the vibrancy of colours, the rich flavours of the food and the historic monuments proclaiming the wonder of the country’s historic past. In stark contrast, however, one cannot escape the wretched sight of the poor, particularly the women and their children, which pervades every journey. Even our own homeless, here in the UK, could not imagine the squalor and degradation these people suffer every day.
My first recent encounter with a small part of this country was unexpected and incredibly privileged. Having won an online competition, I felt humbled and unimaginably pampered, in fact almost guilty for what I had been given, in the presence of this terrible need. But what can a single, western woman do? The prevailing culture of male dominance thwarts the fairer sex before one can even begin!
Male chauvinism is alive and kicking in all its glory in India. As a woman in her fifties, I have lived and worked with male chauvinism all my days, partly due to my choice of career, but I felt a distinct unease walking the Asian streets, despite having two protective male companions. Global media have recently exposed particularly heinous crimes against Indian women, so things are slowly changing. Taxis in Delhi bear large signs announcing respect for women and “women only” zones are being introduced in aeroplanes and public places. However, it will take a time to change attitudes ingrained in the average male’s psyche.
There is a minority of high achieving Indian women. The in-flight magazines and the Times of India proclaim a new age of all-women crews flying jets and other high fliers holding strategic roles, but for most girls even getting a basic education is a struggle not easily acquired. What grabbed my personal attention was the rise of women’s co-operatives, trading in the produce of their traditional skills. Embroidered textiles, woven pashminas, pottery and metalwork all clamoured for attention with their vibrant, jewel colours. These ornamental beauties could be bought from government-run bazaars or tiny roadside stalls for a fraction of the cost of even shoddy machine-made items available in the UK.
Through the encouragement of these traditional artisans, NGOs and self-help foundations are helping to provide women from the rural communities with a sustainable livelihood. From developing skills in tailoring and embroidery to technical training and self-defence workshops, these organisations empower women socially by instilling confidence and equipping them with a range of skills and knowledge to find worthwhile employment.
Whilst visiting one of Delhi’s famous historic sites, I noticed one such local project, selling its simple, colourful wares from a tiny stall at the roadside. Insha.e.Noor creates beautiful embroidery, sanjhi and crochet products handcrafted by the women of Nizamuddin Basti, an impoverished district in Southern Delhi undergoing urban renewal. This project trained women in these skills for a year, before setting up to retail their hand-crafted products.
As an animal lover, I was delighted to read of another project, further north in Uttarakhand, called “We Love Bunnies”. This Women’s Handloom project was created as a result of the failure of a government scheme, involving the raising of Himalayan Angora rabbits for their wool, which left 1000’s of these wonderful animals at risk of starvation or becoming dinner for the military. “We Love Bunnies” rescued 100’s of angora rabbits and gave them new and loving homes in Ambiya Paradise and with local villagers. They are now able to free graze in bottomless cages in the abundant alpine meadows and then are gently combed. With international assistance, the village women opened their own village weaving centre that provides training and then employment to the women. Their angora products are now sold worldwide and profits are reinvested into the project to benefit the women.
Sadly, I am not in a position to make donations, offer sponsorship or even volunteer in one of many women’s projects springing up throughout the nation, but I can at least help them in some small way through the promotion of those that have caught my attention. For those of you wanting to experience this incredible place, perhaps you too might think what you might be able to offer these sisters. The sum of all our small actions would soon add up to make a big difference to these lives.