We spoke to Madhu Vaishnav founder and executive director of Saheli Women, a non-profit women-led organisation that empowers the women of Bhikamkor village in rural Rajasthan, India, through creating ethical and sustainable fashion.
The Saheli ("female friend" in Hindi) atelier is a safe place for 35 of its female artisans to work, be creative and lift themselves and their families out of poverty.
As shops re-open and sales are in full swing, the story of Saheli Women is an important reminder about the handprint of fashion. The women who make our clothes should be celebrated for their craft and treated equally to the women in our very own circles.
Tell us a little bit about Saheli Women, and what you are trying to achieve.
Saheli Women is a non-profit social enterprise founded by the Institute of Philanthropy & Humanitarian Development five years ago. Our aim is to empower women living in rural Rajasthan through creating ethical and sustainable fashion in collaboration with the Modi government.
Our beginnings were humble: a budget of US$100 and lots of hard work to get 5 women to come on-board, convince their families who worried it was breaking societal norms and mobilise them towards our goals.
Women are the backbone of every family, and they spend 90% of their income on their family as opposed to men. We wanted to empower these women financially, which is why we started with embroidery projects. The results were amazing, as all the women we work with now are going to school and have earned respect from their families.
What are you most proud of as an organisation?
The women we work with have the right attitude: "nothing is impossible" - is the saying at the atelier. If any of them need training, our clients are more than happy to fund (it really helps that all our fashion partners are also females). When I returned to my motherland from the US where I did my Diploma in Urban Development at UC Berkeley I felt very disconnected. Through connecting with these women, I became so humble and felt an affinity towards them and my country. At Saheli, all women are equals, there is no 'boss' and we have flexible hours to support various circumstances. We're supportive of their creativity.
What challenges are you currently facing?
Social challenges are the biggest issue. The majority of the women are not literate, they have had to compete with the international labour market and learn about numbers as well as skills they hadn't used before.
Who inspires you and the Saheli women?
The women themselves, it's their organisation after all! I hope they will run one themselves one day. For me the biggest inspirations come from my past life and experiences in the rural life, as well as from my clients and partners. I'm also forever inspired by Jeanne de Kroon, founder of Zazi Vintage, who introduced slow and ethical fashion to me and was my first partner who encouraged me to keep Saheli going.
What can we expect to see from Saheli women in the next year?
We are looking to get the whole production on solar power, but are struggling with the Indian government, getting donations in and the certificate required for them - fingers crossed this will happen soon!
How can our Rotators help support you and your work?
Supporting the women's artwork and giving them recognition they deserve as artist. Please do spread the word about Saheli Women.
Images by Nada Kloss