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.

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Women laughing as they work during the daytime. Photo credit courtesy of Oscar Ugarte.

At Saint Mary’s, all women have personal savings accounts, and the women are seeking to organize their own credit cooperative bank in order to secure loans at low interest rates. After travelling across most parts of India, I learned about how difficult it is to acquire credit at reasonable interest rates (without resorting to a private lender) and it was assuring knowing that these women are learning financial planning skills.

Inside the production centre, mothers were sitting on the floor of area while their daughters were busy working on geometry assignments. Sister Silvia remarked that most of these girls are completing tenth standard, which is the Canadian equivalent to Grade 10.

Young women focusing on schoolwork. Photo credit courtesy of Oscar Ugarte.

Sister Silvia described one challenge which the co-operative is facing, “Young women [within the cooperative] are losing interest in needlecraft and are seeking to learn computer skills” I did not find this realization too surprising as it seemed natural that women raised in such an empowering environment would naturally desire to seek knowledge, and hone new skills.

And, does the co-operative have the means to fulfill these ambitions?

“Computer classes are being taught for young girls, while literacy classes aimed at older women are being taught as well," Sister Silvia replied. 

As a researcher, the most powerful element at Saint Mary’s was the sense of security. As a man, I admit that I lack a complete understanding of the sheer magnitude that is systemic sexism. There exists a multitude of barriers which Indian women face on a daily basis. Most at Saint Mary’s have suffered domestic abuse, while others never received the opportunity to attend school because they were married off early and had to raise a family.

In effect, tapestry and embroidery is a commonality which binds women together from different castes and different religious convictions.

As an undergrad, I recalled how household incomes increase in proportion to the education level of girls. Witnessing young women learning geometry and wanting to hone their skills with a computer, I believe that they will have the opportunity to pursue higher education, and find a career of their choosing.

On this note, I challenge Canadians to ensure that craft purchases are contributing to the economic and social development of artisan communities. Some questions which consumers can ask retailers are the following:

  • Do you purchase directly from producers? If so, how much do they recieve for a day's work?
  • How do you verify that there is no child labour involved in making these products?
  • Are producers organized in a manner so they can collectively voice what challenges they are facing in their community?
  • For a larger retailer who claims that their product is "fairly traded," ask whether their business is a member of the World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO) or Fair Trade Federation (FTF). Both memberships require retailers to adhere to international Fair Trade principles.

For more information about where you can purchase Fair Trade handemade crafts in Canada, check out locations that are recommended by Fair Trade Vancouver.

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