Isabella and Madhu with ladies at the Saheli Center
Saheli Women began in 2015 as a social initiative project by the Institute for Philanthropy and Humanitarian Development (IPHD), a women’s empowerment and rural community development non-profit based in Jodhpur. The term Saheli, means “female friend” in Hindi, reflects the collaboration among the women of the center.
Married at the age of 23, as a part of her marriage contract, Madhu was forbidden from working outside of the home. Even though she had a masters degree in Indian History. Two healthy sons later, Madhu had a desire to do more. In an effort to enroll her son in a prestigious English academy, she began taking classes to learn English and met with the school director and was miraculously offered a position as a teacher. She convinced her family to allow her to accept the offer, and committed herself to teaching during the day and learning English in the evenings.
Although Madhu was a successful and beloved teacher, after four years of working in the school she shifted to work in the nonprofit sector as a social worker. Madhu was exposed to the disadvantaged status of the village women. She was so inspired by the women’s ability to support their families with little means.
Madhu saw that every woman in the village owned a sewing machine as part of their marriage dowry. She saw this as an opportunity to begin a skills training course as part of a fashion social enterprise.
This came to be known as the Saheli Woman Project
, which comes from the Hindi word for ‘female friend’. This project began to grow and more brands began to partner with the women producers. As Saheli grew, Madhu realized that the young girls in the village needed support, and started the girls’ education project.
Saheli Women is a nonprofit clothing manufacturer and ethical fashion social enterprise located in the village of Bhikamkor, a little over 60 km north of Jodhpur, in rural Rajasthan, India. We employ 35 rural women, providing them with fair wages, health insurance coverage and a safe work environment free from gender, religious and caste discrimination. Saheli Women’s vision is to create a sustainable livelihood for the village women who previously depended on their closest male relatives. With the training and opportunities provided to these women by the center, women have been able to become financially self-sufficient.
“This space allows for women to openly discuss the challenges they face and it’s amazing to see the support these women give each other.”
IPHD manages the Saheli Women production facility for clothing, accessories, and homeware out of its community center in Bhikamkor. Additionally, IPHD partially sponsors the educations of the girls in the village and supports the local government girls’ school. This year we are sponsoring education for 180 girls. IPHD also runs health literacy classes and financial literacy for the village ladies.
The women, are trained in stitching and embroidery by a professional tailor through various skills training workshops. In terms of procuring fabric, we help partners source local Indian textiles and trimmings, including organic cotton, linenm vegetable-dyed cotton, block print, silk or satin.
“Though our women did not begin as professional tailors, they had a certain understanding of stitching passed down from mother to daughter”
“Our ladies are amazing learners and have made impressive progress, though the majority never finished primary school. Through the training we have provided, these women now have the tools to produce professional work and we are continuously looking to build their skill set.”
At IPHD, we are always looking towards the future. From the very start, we had a dream of providing our women with professional sewing machines, now all our ladies are working on the professional sewing machines. However, embroidery is all handmade like the Oramai x Saheli Trousers.
Our current goal is to create employment for 100 women in ethical fashion over the course of the next few years, allowing them to derive a sustainable livelihood that benefits themselves, their families and their communities.
What has been Saheli Women’s impact?
The Saheli Women project began four years ago with only $100 USD. Since then, the women earning a livelihood through Saheli Women have made remarkable strides in rising above poverty, improving their family’s quality of life and bettering their community.
Rising above poverty: The women earn a monthly salary that is dependent upon their quantity of work, but is well above the Indian poverty line.
Financial empowerment: The women employed in Saheli Women were previously all housewives who did not formally contribute to their household incomes. Now that they do, the women are more confident and have earned greater respect in their families and their community.
Stronger families: With mothers bringing in additional income, families in the village are enjoying a higher quality of life, with better food, clothes, homes, health and education.
Socialization: Women in Bhikamkor used to rarely leave the house because they needed a purpose and permission from their husbands. Now, the 20 Saheli Women employees have become great friends.
Safe space: The Saheli Community Center, home of the Saheli Women production facility, is exclusively a space for women and their children and has a zero-tolerance policy against gender, religious and caste discrimination.