Life in Chithirapettai, a small fishing hamlet in the coastal district of Cuddalore in south Tamil Nadu, is as rough as the sea and as unpredictable as a day’s catch. For those who seek the waves at the crack of dawn, hoping for a good haul, life has always been uncertain - you might come home a winner, towing in a heavy net or you might forever be lost at sea.
For 28-year-old Vaanvizhi, getting by with her husband’s unreliable income was an unending battle she had to fight every day. “People think fishermen make good money but reality is that they find employment very sporadically. In a fishing community, most of the women stay at home. It’s only the men who sail the seas and a few old people who go out to sell the fish,” she says.
Having to run a family of four with her husband’s unreliable income was a challenge she had to face. This was until she enrolled herself in a self-help programme called SURA, which was part of an ongoing project called 'Kanavu'.
Project Kanavu is led by Nisha and Gowtham, an educator-couple working with the Association for Sarva Seva Farms (ASSEFA) foundation. The project is a community-powered transformative initiative that hopes to create healthy, financially stable, sustainable, and empowered communities in rural Tamil Nadu.
Vaanvizhi, along with four other women from Chithirapettai, including 19-year-old Madhumitha, have taken it upon themselves to be the change they want to see.
A minor tussle over increasing education costs is what led these women to Nisha. “The fee at ASSEFA school had increased by more than half and we were completely helpless,” says Vaanvizhi.
Encouraged by Nisha, the group started small last year with a lot of uncertainty clouding their path. After deciding upon tailoring, their first milestone came in July 2017 when they received micro credit loans to buy their own sewing machines.
“We first began attending tailoring classes in August and in a month we were able to make bags. For Teachers’ Day that year we sold the bags we made in the school,” says Vaanvizhi.
Nisha explains that the self help group has allowed these women to take care of their expenses in addition to supplementing their husband’s income. “They’re extremely hard-working. In about 50 hours, the five of them were able to make 150 bags," she says.
However, this journey has not been without challenges. “If we worked in an urban space, procuring materials won’t be a huge challenge as it is for us today. When machines stop working, it means a day of work is lost as they have to travel to Cuddalore and back to get it repaired. While loans have helped secure machines fitted with motors, erratic power cuts end up pushing the women back to the mechanical pedals in the machines, bringing down productivity,” says Nisha.
However, this entire experience has brought in a world of change for these women.
In addition to productively spending their time, they have also been able to contribute to their family financially. “From the time I was a kid, I’ve always wanted to learn how to sew. I’ve just realised my dream. Just last week, I designed my daughter’s salwar and choli. Just a year ago I wouldn't have believed that this was possible,” Vaanvizhi gushes.
Having completed her schooling in Chennai, Vaanvizhi admits that Chithiraipettai had no options for a woman who wanted to be employed. “The village is an hour away from Cuddalore and we had to walk one kilometre to even reach the bus stop," she says.
But now, with their own tailoring units, the group hopes to inspire other women to take up tailoring to support themselves and their family. “Initially, our husbands helped us repay the loan but just two months later, we’ve been able to pay our own dues. While I am at work, my husband helps with the chores and also takes care of the children. This has been a very gratifying experience,” she says.
The SURA team makes pillow covers, bags, drawstring pouches, laptop bags, totes, cell phone pouches, all made on order. You can call 9884618508 or write to firstname.lastname@example.org to place orders.
Project Kanavu is also working on other initiatives in 5 rural schools and 80 village communities, aspiring to create sustainable school-wide leadership practices. Check out their Facebook page here.