At the edge of India’s Thar Desert, in a dusty village called Bhikamkor, women are breaking barriers and feeling empowered through their craft.
Known mainly to passing tourists for its historical-fort-turned-elegant hotel, Bhikamkor is also home to a caste-ridden community of 5000 people that largely relies on the land for sustenance. Its remote location leaves it neglected by the government, and its conservative society means women are even more isolated. However, this is changing with the establishment of Saheli center, a women-run community center developed by the Indian NGO Institute for Philanthropy and Humanitarian Development (IPHD). It has become a safe space for women to gain skills in handicraft work and learn the tools of financial independence.
The Saheli center is named after the fashion microenterprise Saheli Designs, currently managed by Bhikamkor’s women. Saheli is the brainchild of IPHD founder Madhu Vaishnav and Australian intern Jacklyn McCosker, who now serves as its director. Meaning ‘female friend’ in Hindi, Saheli aims to empower and connect women from all over the world through their brand of socially conscious and locally sourced products. After receiving skills training from international designers and a local seamstress, 10 women are currently employed in the center and getting paid for the handmade accessories they produce. These products are sold in Australia, where India’s exotic style is trending among the country’s youth.
In a village where there are no female doctors and 80 percent of its women are anemic, Madhu’s dreams for Saheli have the potential to transform the lives of Bhikamkor’s women.
Madhu admits there were initial obstacles that preceded the success of Saheli. Due to the community’s fixed perceptions of gender roles, many women are denied access to education and ways of earning an income. The women themselves also harbored doubts due to the legacy left by previous government projects that were never sustained. Furthermore, the rigid class system still entrenched in rural Indian society led to class discrimination within the Saheli community at the beginning. However, a diverse bunch of women from different religions and castes now socialize and work together in the same compound, forming a sisterhood espoused by the message of Saheli.
“The aim is to make this community thrive, not just survive,” said Madhu, who has plans to set up a women’s library, a community garden, and a mobile health clinic in Bhikamkor. “In four years we hope to bring real change.”