A Day with the Saheli Women’s Collective in Bhikamkor, India

Photography by Stefan Dotter

After founding the Institute for Philanthropy and Humanitarian Development, Madhu Vaishnav relocated to the rural village of Bhikamkor where she began teaching the local women embroidery to help them to generate their own income. Jeanne De Kroon travels to India to find out about the special project, now well-established and known as the Saheli Women’s Collective.

It was through the sparkly eyes of a stranger in the blue city of Jodhpur that I fully understood what the definition of ethical fashion should be. I met Madhu Vaishnav at her home for the first time in 2016; we had both just started our projects and sat down for chai while she was going through her children’s homework and telling me about a place called Bhikamkor. 

Her eyes lit up every time she talked about the women she met there and how she saw so much great potential in this rural village next to the Thar desert. She decided to open up a women’s centre and started the Saheli Women’s Collective, teaching embroidery to five women in a small blue house surrounded by goats and cows, all with a budget of just one hundred dollars. Now three years later, this project has 11 international and national fashion partners, employs over 35 women and sends 70 girls to school.  

By giving a voice to the artisans, Madhu has become an advocate for female craftsmanship around the world. She always presses the importance of seeing beyond the care label on our clothing to the human behind each garment, and The Saheli Women’s collective highlights the change that can be made when we truly feel the presence of the creators behind our clothes. When I travelled out to Bhikamkor to spend some time with the women involved in the beautiful initiative, I interviewed Madhu her about her journey with the group, her ideas about the future of fashion and the importance of sharing stories.

Dear Madhu, can you tell me how you started out and why you decided to set up the Institute for Philanthropy and Humanitarian Development? 

I always hoped to go into social work one day, but I was born into a very traditional family where women either stay at home or they become engineers, doctors or teachers. My marriage was arrnged when I was 23 years old and I was supposed to stay at home as a housewife; but after doing this for a few years, I started to raise my voice. People called me rebellious but for me, the journey started there and slowly I started breaking cultural norms. 

I started by working as a teacher, but my calling towards social work was very strong and to fulfil that, I left my school job and joined a non-profit organisation where I worked for six years. In 2014, I went to UC Berkeley and completed a diploma course in social welfare. When I came back, I founded the Institute for Philanthropy and Humanitarian Development and began by working with victims of sex trafficking in the slums of Jodhpur. However, after a year I realized that it was so difficult to track progress, as just a few women would return to us more than once. I really wanted make impact on people’s lives through my work and for this reason, I relocated to the village of Bhikamkor in 2015 and began IPHD as we know it today.

When did you start the Saheli Women’s collective and have your goals evolved over time? 

When I moved to Bhikamkor I decided to start a female empowerment project in which we provided skills development training to the local women. It wasn’t easy because they had never experienced an organisation like us before; only after having several conversations did five ladies finally agree to join the training. The other challenge was finance. I only had one hundred dollars to fund the training, which meant that we were not able to purchase any sewing machines and so we decided to start with embroidery classes instead. 

I understood that the ladies’ priority was to overcome poverty and so I created the Saheli Women’s collective as a social enterprise, linking them to western designers who could come here and develop their designs with us. Five years on, we have 35 ladies in the project and all of them are earning double the minimum wages fixed by the Indian government. The key to success was that I used a bottom-up approach in terms of development; I made everybody participate in every decision making in every step.

Can you tell me about your personal relationship with textiles, and the significance that they hold to you? 

Like every woman, I love the clothing in my own life; I have always had a very special relationship with saris in particular. But I never thought clothing would one day change the life of the ladies in my village. I have been a witness to the whole production process with the Saheli Women’s Collective, and I always say that every piece of fabric that the ladies have worked on helps them develop their skills and gain financial empowerment, bringing lots of happiness for both the women and their families. 

What are the challenges the women have been able to overcome with the collective?

The Saheli ladies love working on all of the most challenging designs. Most of the women never went to school or only studied up to about sixth or eighth grade; even things like inches and centimetres were very new to them but they decided to learn maths to better understand all the measurements. The women also have lots responsibilities like household chores or taking care of the children and animals at home, and they still have to do these even now they are earning. That is why we give all the ladies the freedom to choose their own work hours and holidays so they can still take care of all the duties and bring happiness for their families.

You have chosen to keep production small by refusing big orders at times. What is your reasoning behind this? 

The Saheli Women’s Collective is not a factory, it’s an arts and fashion studio where we try to bring beautiful designs to life. We also try to emphasise the connection between artisans and buyers. Any time we send pieces, we include the maker’s sketches and her story so that customers can better create that connection with their clothes and see for themselves they are not made my machines, but by real strong women instead. It is vital for us to save the village culture and environment, and that is also why we do not mass produce items and only work with biodegradable and natural fabrics.

We pay our ladies a fair wage, without them having to work for many hours. I have seen a lot of factories, even those that pay a living wage, and it is hard for people there to earn their salary by stitching one or two garments. They have to make so many pieces every day to earn a minimum wage, and we call that labouring. What Saheli Women do is not labouring; instead, they put their heart and soul into every piece. We even have a master who comes every day and teach them to sew. I strongly feel like if something is made cheaply then it means that somewhere along the supply chain, someone has been exploited. Handmade pieces can’t be cheap and we need to respect those who have spent their time and efforts creating something by paying them fairly.

What is the importance of reviving local and traditional artisanal craftsmanship, and how can it be used to create change?

Indian craft is beautiful but unfortunately these skills are dying. It is our legacy and if we want to save this heritage, we have to market these skills to world. In my opinion, artisan craftsmanship also helps to build cultural competence and understanding because it links people with different cultures and teaches them to appreciate other ways of living. 

The Saheli Collective is a not-for-profit social enterprise, there is no boss here and every single woman participates in the decision-making process. I believe that if you want to change the world, you should empower the women around the world. If one woman is happy it effects so many families. If a woman is empowered, the family is empowered and as a result, the community and the whole nation is empowered. If we want to provide better future to our children, we have to empower their mothers. 

What is your biggest wish for the future of the Saheli Women’s collective?

That people will want to hear our voices. We have a voice and I would like it if people and brands help us to reach out and use it, sharing our thoughts rather than simple holding a flyer for a photograph. I would like the world to know about the strong ladies who change their lives through fashion, and how these beautiful women bring a positive connotation to the clothing – empowering the maker and the wearer at the same time. At the end of the day, when the clothes are made with love than they can be worn with confidence.

Read about Jeanne’s experience with Brazil’s Huni Kuin Community.

See how The Haiku project has been empowering women in the Amazon.

Learn about the women’s co-operatives in Rajasthan use hand-block printing.