Aimed at training rural women with sewing and stitching to make them self-sustained, Usha Silai Schools have been able to impact 1.78 lakh women belonging to the Northeast regions, a few of whom were also part of a recent East India Fashion Week.
Lalita Rai was just a housewife with less hope for the financial stability of her future. While a housewife should seldom be accompanied by "just" leaving this topic aside, Rai would live in her home in Agrigoan village in Manipur, a north-east state, without expecting much from life. "I never thought I had a future and often wondered about my identity," Rai says, but adding that since the time she has been associated with the Usha Silai Schools, she thinks she has been transformed from a "simple woman" to a "superwoman."
With 32,000 schools spread across the states and the union territories of India, Usha Silai School is a community-based rural initiative to empower women in remote areas of the country. The initiative, which started in the year 2011, has been offering a 9-day residential intensive training programme to women enrolled in its Silai School program in rural regions pan India. Working in partnership with over 87 local NGOs across India, these schools have significantly impacted the lives of rural women. While talking about North-East alone, the schools have impacted 1.78 lakh women, of which Lalita Rai is also part, who does not hesitate to say that she is "hopeful that she could also do something in life."
The nine-day residential training at Usha includes instructions in sewing methods, sewing machine repair and maintenance, and even "life skills" given to the chosen women. They are then also provided with support materials such as Usha Silai School signage, a service manual, a diploma, and a curriculum in the local language. Talking about the initiative, the Vice President of the Usha Silai Schools says, "The goal of the Usha Silai School initiative is to empower rural women across India by skilling them and supporting them to become self-sustaining micro-entrepreneurs."
One such micro-entrepreneur from Manipur is Moirang Thoibi Devi, who did not have enough money even to buy a bicycle. "After enrolling myself with Usha, I have gained immense confidence. There is financial stability after which I have been able to enroll both my sons in primary schools," she says, adding that she was also able to purchase a scooty recently.
To ensure that women like Moirang can successfully take entrepreneurship ahead, NGOs partnered with the schools to provide ongoing assistance to establish their own Usha Silai Schools in their homes, which includes enlisting the help of the neighbourhood and mobilizing students and the local market connections. Moreover, the Usha Silai School staff routinely observes and assists the women in raising their subsistence income via sewing, teaching sewing techniques, and sewing machine repair.
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Such sewing techniques have come in handy to women like Pinkumoni Devi, who, after learning from the school, bought her own silai machine and has been sewing and stitching to maintain her livelihood. The native of Assam says, "I joined Usha in 2018, after which I purchased a sewing machine. Following the purchase, I started earning more than before." A similar case has been with Elangbam Surbala Devi, who hails from Manipur, and she says, "I tell other girls and women I meet either individually or in groups to look at how the sewing business has changed my life. Considering that earlier only men were known as the sole breadwinners for their families, others are truly inspired seeing it has completely changed in my case."
Women in the rural regions of the Northeast have long been limited to household chores, while men would go out to work - that too, within a few and limited opportunities. Although the Census 2011 reported a rise in the number of women in the workforce in the Northeast region, there is no doubt that the poverty and unemployment among them are quite vigilant. "In remote areas, women often bear the brunt of the lack of jobs and resources, struggle to support their family's well-being, and have little or no say in the communities. After taking the training, these women gain skills and confidence to start running micro-enterprises of their own," Tete says.
When they flaunted at the fashion show!
The efforts of these women have not only been recognized for the first time at a fashion week, like the recent East India Fashion Week that took place between May 3 to 10, but the Usha Silai women have also showcased their works at two Lakme Fashion Weeks. The East India Fashion Week, however, proved to be a moment of pride for the schools as 10 of the women, including Lalita Rai, Moirang Thoibi Devi, and Pinkumoni Devi, who belonged to the rural areas, were selected for the week and also got to work with other designers.
As a matter of fact, East India Fashion Week featured various local weaves and materials, traditional craft techniques, and inculcating age-old designs with a modern twist, with the women participating from the Usha schools. Among those women entrepreneurs, one was also a rape survivor who was also HIV positive. Remembering the same, the Vice President says, "She expressed that having worked with the designers was very fulfilling, but she does not want to stop at that. She wants to learn more about fashion designing and launch her own collection."