A clothing brand works with artisan clusters of women in rural India providing them with sustained employment
When Asha Scaria, founder of ethical clothing brand Swara VOW (Voice of Women), broached the idea of an online portal for garments they stitched to the women from the tribal communities of Dungarpur, it was met with scepticism.
“The women were suspicious of the idea: they wondered whether, and how it would work. The concept of e-commerce — selling and buying online — was foreign to them. They could not understand how that could happen, and why anybody outside Dungarpur would buy what they made,” says Asha. Two years later, not only has the brand provided sustained employment to women employed by it, but also created in them a sense of empowerment.
Swara VOW works with women-driven artisan clusters across the country
Actors Priyanka Chopra and Bhumi Pednekar have mentioned the brand on their socials. “The recognition empowers the women and makes them feel that they can do anything. They understand the value of their work,” Asha says.
Swara is one of the few brands in the country which is a member of the Cultural Intellectual Property Rights Initiative, an international movement which not only recognises cultural IP rights for craftsmen but also acknowledges women as custodians and transmitters of traditional knowledge, designs and manufacturing techniques.
Asha says preservation of culture — cultural sustainability — is perceived as the ‘luxury pillar’ of the sustainability movement. Cultural sustainability is defined as the preservation of culture — beliefs, practices, and heritage among others aspects. “What happens to culture when we are done dealing with the more pressing sustainability issues? What if there is no culture left to preserve?” she asks.
The brand pivots on the artisan who is acknowledged as an equal partner. In this case women artisans. “We want to enable and empower them,” she says. “The women work from home; they don’t have to step out and they set the pace. This way there is no reason for them to sacrifice their jobs and it keeps them employed, empowered,” says Asha, who hails from Ettumanoor in Kerala.
Asha with one of the tailors in Dungarpur
Asha embarked on the project in 2018, when she was in Dungarpur doing the Gandhi Fellowship. It [the Fellowship] grooms fellows to become ‘change leaders’ to initiate change in existing social and public systems. When she started “it was just an idea based on the hypothesis that they could use their skills to make ‘cool stuff’ looking at YouTube videos. I started Dungarpur because that is where I was based,” she says. Asha had been interacting with local women so she knew them, their lives and skills. She had help from others like Aqsa Zaidi, Vivek Dhabhai, Tanveer Khara, Swastika Dhar and Gogul Pathmanabhan who were part of the Fellowship and were in Dungarpur with her.
As part of Government-run skill development programmes or CSR initiatives, the women had acquired basic tailoring, owned sewing machines and had been sewing for local customers. It took some convincing over several rounds of conversations with them — as groups and individually too.
Although the women had been stitching, they were put through a month’s up-skilling so that their work would be on a par with what is available online. “We didn’t want to wait to get perfect at it, we wanted to start it and we did,” she says. One problem the tailors faced was stitching according to a size chart, up until then they had been custom tailoring.
A model in Swara
The first collection was made of indigo-dyed, Dabu fabric — a mud-resist, block technique — sourced from artisans in nearby Akola. The engagement continues, Swara brands and markets saris the artisans make. Some garments and saris even bear the names of the artisan who crafted them. those.
Asha has already established a rapport with the women as part of her work related to the Gandhi Fellowship. Explaining the idea of online shopping took some time, all devices at hand — smartphones and tablets — were put to use to show how it works. While Swara has trained 40 tailors, it has worked with more than 70 tailors (artisans) directly or through NGOs. The number of tailors the brand works with has come down due to the lockdown. “Our goal for 2021 is to provide consistent monthly income of ₹6,000 and run social impact programmes (with access to technology) with 50 women tailors,” she says.
Currently Swara works with clusters identified by SEWA Bharat, a federation of women-led institutions which works towards providing economic and social support for women. At present artisans from West Bengal and Kerala work with Swara besides those in Dungarpur. Asha works with NGOs that have already mobilised women artisans. Swara works with women in need of support — women in rural and/or tribal areas or survivors of human trafficking.
The core areas are product development and marketing. “We are neither involved in mobilisation as there are enough NGOs across the country doing that, nor up-skilling as we need expertise for that and develop teams in each of these places. We cannot do that now. There are takers for the crafts, the gap is in marketing where our skills are. We help take the artisan’s product to the consumer. Product development is the key, as is understanding the market. We want to help the women who get left behind,” she says.
She started with an Instagram handle (@swaravow) and built a base. Swara is registered as a ‘for profit social enterprise’ as she wants to show that a sustainable model, with social welfare at its heart, is possible. She hopes more people would perhaps do the same. The product profile is not limited to garments, but accessories too. Although there are no designers on board, design interns provide inputs.
There has been an increase in interest in shopping local, ethical and sustainable over lockdown, “Definitely there is change. People are making conscious buying choices,” Asha says.
The payoff for Asha is the empowerment of the women she works with, “they understand the value of their work when they see it being valued outside. It gives them exposure to the outside world, they know they are not limited to one place.”