Saint Mary's craft co-operative helps Indian women overcome gender barriers and double earnings

Empowered women unlock entrepreneurialism and claim dignity for their families.

Patience and dexterity are pre-requisites for craftmaking. Photo credit courtesy of Oscar Ugarte.

Ahmedabad, Gujarat—I anxiously looked at my watch and realized that it was already noon. I only a short while to somehow connect with a Fair Trade handicraft co-operative called Saint Mary’s Mahila Shikshan Kendra (or Saint Mary’s for short), and all I had to go on was a pen-scratched address somewhere in my notebook.

Saint Mary’s is part of a nursing home in Ahmedabad where local women make embroidered crafts such as purses and tapestries, which in turn are purchased by well-established Fair Trade retailers such as Ten Thousand Villages Canada and SERRV. And, halfway around the world, people buy these handmade crafts as holiday gifts and wedding presents.

After haggling with numerous rickshaw drivers, I was soon whizzing through the streets of Ahmadabad in hopes of tracking down a Catholic nun named Sister Lucia who runs the co-operative in the middle of Gomtipur, a slum region within the city. Ahmedabad is of particular importance to activism as it is where Ghandi resided and began his organizing.

 Rickshaw driver negotiating traffic and children. Photo by Sasha Caldera.

Saint Mary’s has a longstanding history within the Fair Trade movement as it was founded before major retailers became prominent. To incubate the establishment, NGOs like Oxfam GB purchased crafts from Saint Mary’s and sold them at Oxfam worldshops around Europe. Because of Oxfam’s support, Saint Mary’s grew and was gradually able to increase the amount of embroiderers. Today, Saint Mary’s provides employment for about 475 women, most of who work from home.

The rickshaw came to a stop outside a brick building. After paying the driver, and upon exploring the complex, I was greeted in Hindi by women sitting on the floor and weaving. The women were in good spirits as they were laughing and joking amongst each other. An elderly woman approached me and introduced herself as Sister Lucia.

Sister Lucia is a Peruvian nun who has been running the cooperative since its inception in 1970. After a brief conversation— made possible by my classmate Oscar Ugarte, who speaks Spanish— Sister Lucia invited me for tea with her fellow director, Sister Silvia.

Sasha Caldera and Sister Silvia touring the production facility at Saint Mary's co-operative. Photo credit courtesy of Oscar Ugarte.

Over masala chai and biscuits, Sister Silvia spoke at length about the co-operative. And, I soon discovered that the women earn about 120 rupees for a day’s work (equivalent to about $2.5 U.S.) which is twice as much what they would earn outside the co-operative.

“Most women work at home because they can earn money while taking care of household duties,” Sister Siliva commented.

In comparison to their husbands in Gomtipur, women at Saint Mary’s generally earn more.

Recently, Ten Thousand Villages Canada provided a producer dividend to finance the construction of a separate building that will be devoted to tailoring and will double as a daycare. The co-operative itself ensures that revenues from craft sales go towards purchasing books and uniforms for children of families’. Likewise, other funds are earmarked for food, housing rents, and dowry in anticipation of marriages. All of these decisions are made by the women embroiderers.

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