Empowering IKEA

Members of the Rangsutra community-owned craft company at work on products to be sold during Holi. Rangsutra, which aims to create sustainable livelihoods for rural artisans, is working with IKEA to bring products made by Indian women to the global market. (Rangsutra Facebook photo)

MIRZAPUR — For Nirmala Maurya, 32, running and managing the home became tedious and she began a different life swimming against the social current. For Maurya, from Arjunpur Pathak village, her journey of self-reliance and financial independence began in 2010 when she was approached by Rangsutra, a community-owned craft company of over a thousand artisans from remote regions of India which boasts of "ensuring sustainable livelihoods and regular employment for rural artisans."

The company leverages the growing handicraft businesses to reduce poverty and to empower women by making them financially independent.

In several villages near Mirzapur, many women like Maurya – with or without their family's support – made the same attempt to break the deadlock and joined the organization.

"It was a huge battle against the taboo," Maurya told IANS.

She said her husband, against her wishes, wanted her to shift with him to Kohlapur, where he works.

"For the one week training program that Rangsutra held in Jaunpur, I wasn't given permission by my parents-in-law... I had to go to my mother's house in Benaras where I left my kids and went on to get trained," she said.

It took time to win the family's support but, Maurya says, people in the village still have objections. "They keep saying all kinds of things, they joke about it but I don't care about anything they feel or say as long as my job makes me happy," she said.

"Many of them can't even educate their kids but I have been successful in sending all my three daughters to school."

Now, she has started to save money to build a proper house and to get rid of the mud house that she and her family have been staying in.

She is one of hundreds of women in Uttar Pradesh who, for the past five years, have been making textile products for IKEA, the Swedish-founded, Netherlands-headquartered furniture and home appliances giant. 

Through Rangsutra, around 600 women now work with IKEA, which still does not have a retail presence in India but is expected to open soon.

"Since 2012 IKEA, has been forming partnerships with social entrepreneurs around the world. The social entrepreneurs IKEA works with gain access to a global marketplace, giving them a strong foundation for self-sufficiency and independence," said Vaishali Mishra, Global Leader, Social Entrepreneur Initiatives, IKEA. 

"These partnerships are a new way to make business where everyone wins. The social entrepreneurs gain access to a global marketplace and are able to provide the artisans with a job on their own terms, helping them stay in their village and at the same time provide for their families," she added.

Mishra said that across the years, she has seen lives change.

"I remember the same women were so shy and withdrawn initially. They would not come out in the open without their ghunghats on," she said. "Today, you see them confidently taking up the job, feeling responsible and confident" about being able to make a financial contribution to the family, she stressed.

Radhika Vishwakarma, 22, had a tough time convincing her mother-in-law, who finally snapped: "Do whatever you want!"

"I felt, all right, she has given her permission," she laughed.

With little dreams for themselves and big ones for their children, every morning many of these women hail a ride on auto-rickshaws and bicycles to the IKEA workshop here in Mirzapur.

One of them, very humbly, said: "I want my daughter to grow up and become a pilot."

The workshop has some inspiring, and some very heart-touching stories about women with caliber, women with confidence and about women who dream to become big and move beyond the social barriers.

But then, everybody's tale is not the same. There were also those whose husbands and parents-in-law were more than ready to let them work.

"Acha hai apne bacho ke liye do-chaar paise kama leti hai. Ghar pe bethe bethe bhi kya karna waise (Nice, she earns for her kids. What's the point of sitting idle at home, anyway?)" questioned 65-year-old Munni Devi, mother-in-law of Rangsutra employee Rekha.

Her father-in-law Radhe Shyam added: "Zamana badal gaya hai...ab sab pehle se alag aur behtar hai. Kaahe nahi jaegi Rekha kaam karne (Times have changed...it is different and better than before. Why shouldn't Rekha go to work?)"

"The money I earn, I confidently spend on myself without asking my husband for any support," said 28-year-old Rekha, who now has around 20 women working under her.

"This independence feels good."

(Mudita Girotra's visit to Mirzapur was at the invitation of IKEA. She can be contacted atmudita.g@ians.in)

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