This article is part of our series on small companies with a big mission in five areas: women, kids, community, planet, and hope. Click here for more articles in the series.
It’s estimated that we’re nearly 200 years away from worldwide gender equality.
As it stands today, a woman’s quality of life is known to vary greatly from place to place. In India, for instance, women are paid an average of 34% less than their male counterparts, according to a recent report from the International Labour Organization.
But financial inequality is only the tip of the iceberg: social discrimination, which leads to the likes of domestic violence, period poverty, and sex trafficking, stems from a traditional mindset that devalues women’s labor and range of capability.
“Growing up in the West, I think I was quite privileged, but at the same time I was always aware of the cultural limitations of everything that goes along with being an Indian girl,” says Jitna Bhagani, a UK-based entrepreneur. “I often spoke out about this, for as long as I could remember. From a very young age, I knew I wanted to do something to help women and girls.”
To make women’s voices heard, she set out to create a space where anybody could learn about and seek help for sexual abuse and violence. Today, She Will Survive, her online repository of multilingual resources, consistently draws visitors from 160 countries, but Jitna felt it still “wasn’t enough.”
“Having these resources in place is really good, but it doesn’t address the problem,” she says. “It doesn’t prevent gender-based violence.” Economic independence, on the other hand, has the ability to do just that – and that’s where Shakti.ism, her social enterprise, comes in.
Given Jitna’s personal background and passion for women’s empowerment, it’s no surprise that she chose the traditional sari as her tool for changing the world.
Wasted Fabric, Wasted Talent
South Asia – and India in particular – is known for its saris, which differ by region in material, print, and production method. Depending on the amount of detail and embroidery poured into the individual garment, some types of saris can take a team of several people up to two months to create.
Both local tailors and online retailers offer vast customization options, so it’s not surprising that Indian women are apt to collect many incarnations of the quintessential 6 yards of fabric. But according to Jitna, “People tend to have this attitude that you just buy one for a lot of money and … that’s it, you just wear it once. I think this is crazy.”
Those saris – many given as gifts on special occasions and now lying forgotten in the back of a wardrobe – could be put to far better use, and Jitna began experimenting to find out what else could be made from them.
One look at the Shakti.ism website shows the result of that experimentation: striking totes, clutches, and infinitely reusable gift wrap, all made from repurposed sari fabric. The line also includes upcycled quilts and scarves decorated with Kantha stitching, a distinctive type of embroidery originating in West Bengal.
The signature quilts at Shatki.ism feature six layers of vintage saris, carefully selected for their complementary colors and patterns, then hand-embroidered in a neat, bold stitch with contrasting thread. The result is truly one of a kind – a tribute to the woman who spent up to three days making it. (You’ll find her name written by hand on a corner tag, along with a website where you can learn more about her life.)
Due to India’s rich textile heritage, the potential pipeline for beautiful, upcycled products is almost endless. But Jitna says production for its own sake is not her aim: “The purpose of my business is not to make beautiful things. It is to provide employment for women.”
Employment and Empowerment
Just as there was no shortage of beautiful fabric in India, Jitna also found no shortage of talented makers. In fact, with the help of several small, local NGOs operating across several regions of India, she connected with four separate teams of women trained in tailoring.
The Indian government funds initiatives to provide sewing classes for marginalized and rural women ages 16 and older – but even so, education is no panacea. After completing the program, women too often struggle to find a market for their skills, falling victim to an exploitative informal economy or to manufacturers’ middlemen who pay what Jitna terms “a pittance.”
In just over a year of operation, Shakti.ism has succeeded in providing employment – 5,117 hours of it, to be exact – along with fair paychecks for all that work. The ripple effects are significant, because it’s estimated women reinvest up to 90% of their earnings into their families’ wellbeing, producing stability even for those who fall outside the company’s direct sphere of influence.
And, just as unchecked inequality embeds itself in the warp and weft of a woman’s day-to-day, the mission to uplift women also extends beyond the workplace.
One oft-overlooked facet of South Asian culture is the stigma surrounding menstruation, which makes it very difficult for women to care for their periods in a safe, hygienic manner. Lack of clean water adds to the difficulty of managing periods, and effectively rules out reusable supplies as an option, especially in rural areas where some of the artisans live.
A partnership with a manufacturer of compostable sanitary pads has allowed Shakti.ism to distribute almost 11,000 pads to their staff. Providing an ongoing supply, especially during the pandemic, enhances women’s safety in more ways than one, since disadvantaged girls are frequently forced to trade sex for money to access menstrual products.
Hiring on the Margins
Another collaboration with an artisan group in Bangladesh benefits women who have escaped sex trafficking. In these cases, Jitna explains, a safe workplace becomes their sole refuge because “their communities are ashamed of them, even though they have done nothing wrong.”
“The nice thing about working with entities like this is that we can provide them with options, when they have absolutely no options left.”
Coming alongside individuals whom others are reluctant to employ is a Shakti.ism specialty. For instance, boosted by the proceeds from a crowdfunding campaign, Jitna and her team have offered paid tailor training to 10 additional women: three from a community marginalized for their semi-nomadic lifestyle, and seven more working with physical disabilities.
Once equipped with the skills to earn a living, they’ll have the option of staying on at Shakti.ism or seeking work with another social enterprise.
“We’re designing opportunities for these women,” Jitna says. “Design structure is usually based around the consumer, but in this case, we’re doing the exact opposite.” She’s a firm believer that when products are designed with their makers’ humanity in mind, they take on a beauty and quality distinct from any object a big brand could create.
Spend for good: In addition to those luxurious Kantha quilts, Shakti.ism offers home decor items like throw pillows and placemats that are block-printed by hand. One-of-a-kind accessories include scarves, clutches, and tote bags made from recycled saris. Every item is truly unique, and the selection is constantly changing, so bookmark the site and check back often!
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