Taking The First Guard  
They had never stepped outside their homes, let alone towns until a couple of years back. Today they travel to cities like Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Lahore and Kathmandu on 'business trips'.
All these years they banked upon their fathers and later husbands for every single penny. Today they not are just earning on their own, but making profits, managing the production and marketing unit of their self-help group. It is one of the rare success stories of "empowerment" of women.
"We know our products are good. Now we want to make them the best in the world, so that we can stand against the western competition. Our products have to be of the best quality. Earlier, it was just a question of survival, but today we not just want to survive but prosper and progress too," says Afroze Jahan, one of the weavers. For centuries Chanderi, situated in the Ashok Nagar district of India's largest state has been the hotbed for weaving. Chanderi textiles were patronized initially by the Mughals and later by the Scindias.
In this town of 30,000 people, about one third of the population is from the weaving community, which includes both Hindus and Muslims. But the weaving community began facing trouble when the market for their traditional product -- Chanderi sarees -- started declining. Also as most of the weavers were contractual workers, they had no control over the production process and falling capacity utilization.
Resultantly, their earning capacity began to suffer as the master weavers and traders cornered all the benefits and gave them nominal incomes. This is when the 30 odd women weavers got together to form 'Bunkar Vikas Sanstha' under the aegis of United Nations Industrial Development Programme. UNIDO's Cluster Development Programme along with the Department of Rural Industries, government of Madhya Pradesh supported this programme that was launched a fewyears ago. Since the time of its inception this Sanstha has already sold goods worth Rs 8.3 million even as they continue to get more orders.
Owing to this business, BVS was able to give 10 to 15 per cent extra wages to their weavers and even the profits were distributed amongst them. "The programme was started as an experiment if the development of this artisan cluster could alleviate poverty. However it has not only generated income but also empowered women to take their our decisions. empower the weavers not only through income generation but also empower them to take their own decision,".
Under BVS, the women shelved the existing weaver-master weaver, weaver-trader and weaver-retailer relationship and created new production relationships where they themselves became entrepreneurs and managed everything. "After the formation of our Sanstha, we source our own raw material and even market it and take all decisions on our own," says Muzaffar Jahan, another member of BVS Before the formation of BVS , the UNIDO project organised women in Chanderi as a self-help group where they started savings and interloaning.
The weavers were exposed to different traditional fairs and other weavers' organisations. The women understood that working together would be more beneficial than individual work. They also realised that there was a need to diversify as sarees had a limited market. That's when they diversified to Chanderi salwar kameez, shawls, stoles, yardage, table cloth, cushion covers and curtains amongst others. "The workshops were eye-openers. We got to know that it was not just important to make a good product but even market it well. We understood the dynamics of product marketing. We also realised that if we wanted to cater to a bigger market, then we should not confine ourselves to just sarees but weave other stuff," says Afroze.
The project also facilitated an interaction between these women weavers and some designers from National Institute of Technology and National Institute of Design who shared their experiences with the rural women and "helped" them to improvise their designs. Later all these self-help groups participated in a joint marketing event with a Mumbai-based outfit that organised some "high-profile" buyers for them. "This was our first big exhibition and we learnt our lesson that in order to succeed we have to get attached to high value chains and have professional design inputs," continues Afroze.
It was at this stage that the women from different self-help groups pooled their resources and federated into Bunkar Vikas Sanstha. They began reaping their contacts made during the exhibition. Some Mumbai-based designers also evinced interest in the Chanderi products and the Sanstha received "big orders" from them. In addition to this, they also struck business deals with Fab India, known as one of the biggest handloom and handicraft-marketing organisation in urban India. "Fab India gave us tips on how to modify our products so that they suit the interests of Europe and other Western countries. They have given a new range to our designs. They give us bulk orders for various products, right from dressing material to cushion covers. They are our biggest market. Fab India's subsidiary company has an office in Chanderi that procures materials from us," says Batti Bai, another weaver.
Today BVS, comprising 30 women has an executive committee of 19 members that take all major decisions regarding business. There are two sub-committees for marketing and production related tasks. The dyeing house and yarn bank are also under their control. "We are glad that we have rid ourselves of the traders and retailers now. We share the profits that the Sanstha earns. Earlier our skills were almost wasted as these middle-men would mint all the money. Also, we were short of work and we had a low income. We couldn't save any money. But now we have expanded our markets, are getting regular work and have a better income. Things have changed," says Muzaffar.
Agrees Afroze for whom it's more about "self-sufficiency" than a better income. "More than a few extra bucks, it's our independence that we cherish. The fact that we are doing our own thing has boosted our morale. I was hesitant to even talk to outsiders, be it women or men. While today I have become far more confident and can carry out transactions for BVS anywhere in the world," she says.
Afroze who is the production in-charge of the Sanstha is also the vice-chairperson of the national body of Homenet South Asia that sponsored her to participate in exhibitions in Pakistan and Nepal. Afroze's dream is to visit Paris -- the fashion capital of the world -- and sell her products there. The women of Chanderi have begun to dream big.
  Copyright@ 2009 India Women Welfare Foundation