At a recent exhibition — Craft Roots at the Crowne Plaza in Dubai, with exquisite works of home decor, apparel and accessories in linen, fabric, wood, metal and lacquer — as I was admiring a colourful wooden belan (rolling pin), a woman came to me and said: "This is lacquer work. Our lacquer-work artisans are the poorest."
This was my first introduction to Anar Patel, the driving force behind Gramshree — an Indian NGO initiated more than a decade ago by her mother, Anandiben Patel. Gramshree works in the slums and lower-income areas in the Indian state of Gujarat.
"We are here to showcase the work of more than 350,000 rural artisans through Craft Roots, a designing and marketing platform for three NGOs — Sahaj, Khameer and Gramshree," Anar said.
"In 1994, my mother helped a woman win a court case against abuse. Thus began Gramshree," says Anar, who also runs Manav Sadhna — an NGO for the underprivileged and neglected children — which she initiated in the early nineties.
"There are two preconditions for women who join Gramshree. First, irrespective of how many children she has coming into our programme, no woman should exceed three children after joining us. Secondly, every woman must commit to furthering her children's education. We even help them by providing minimum tuition fees for their children.
"Underprivileged women in India work long hours in demeaning, dangerous and exploitative environments. We aim to remove lines of prejudice, injustice and poverty by working with women through initiatives focused on health, nutrition, income generation, education, awareness, family welfare, savings and credit. By giving women training in marketable skills such as embroidery, patchwork, hand-painting and beadwork, we provide them with the platform to develop their self-sufficiency and quality of life.
Gramshree has transformed the lives of more than 2,000 women and families. One woman is Sangeeta Dabhi, who lives with her parents and two brothers. "My mother spent her day rag-picking, collecting enough to barely feed us one meal. Our hardships were mounting when Gramshree came knocking on our door with an opportunity to change. I began quilting. The nurturing atmosphere of Gramshree is worlds apart from the miseries at home.
"Despite the continuous challenges, my earnings and other benefits from Gramshree, such as food loans, healthcare and guidance, have improved our living conditions. I am proud to say I shoulder the responsibility of my entire family," Dabhi said. Another story is that of Yaminiben Patel. "Never had I thought of getting my body check-up done at the age of 35. I looked hale and hearty.
"During Gramshree's health check-up, it was confirmed that I had breast cancer. But since it was detected early, through surgery I was able to defeat the disease. I am thankful to Gramshree."
— Komal Jain is a UAE-based freelance writer
Organise seminars, lectures and interactive workshops for women, regarding health, hygiene, nutrition, inner growth etc.
II Food programme
Each year the women are provided a year's supply of oil, grains and spices to reduce the daily stress of feeding their families. They repay this subsidised food loan, which costs less than the market value, by paying monthly instalments from the wages they earn through Gramshree.
Anar Patel says: "Every month the women get to choose a picnic location. One such outing was to a mall and some of them were very fascinated with the ATMs. This is when it struck me that organising bank accounts for them will help them save more. We have set up a community-operated bank where the women can maintain their own accounts and become financially independent."
"We provide health awareness, free eye scans and gynaecological check-ups for women. We also provide them health cards that entitle them to discounted and sometimes free treatments. We also focus a lot on family-planning surgeries," Anar said.
For more information, visit www.gramshree.org