Little Women - Big Feats

Meera Siva | | Updated on: Mar 08, 2015




To mark Women’s Day on March 8, we recount the story of six women who braved the odds and emerged successful through courage, tenacity and hard work. Meera Siva reports

Success, stitch by stitch

Standing on her own feet has been a long-term aspiration for R Dhanam, a native of Sathanur village, Thiruvannamalai District, Tamil Nadu. More so, since she had lost the use of her legs due to a polio attack at the age of five. “My parents were migrant construction workers. So I stayed with my grandmother and she used to carry me to school everyday,” she says. Her schooling ended at Class VIII.

“People would openly tell me that I was a burden for everyone. At the age of 13, I resolved to earn a living and not depend on anyone,” she says.

But finding a job or learning a skill was not easy. “My friends joined a tailoring class but as I could not operate the pedal, they refused to teach me,” she recalls sadly.

Despite such setbacks, she picked up the basics of tailoring from her friends and knocked on many doors to get a job.

One opened — an NGO in Chennai taught her tailoring and gave her a job. She worked for nearly five years at tailoring units run by NGOs in Chennai and with the Centre for Social Initiatives and Management in her native village.

Today, she runs her own tailoring shop and teaches too. “I currently teach 10 students and earn around ₹8,000 on average every month. I want to grow my business and provide jobs to other women,” she says with quiet pride.

Going places with confidence

If you have the drive, you can win anywhere in the world. Kalpana Shakya, 34, from Kathmandu, Nepal, is testimony to this adage. “My father passed away when I was a child. At 16 years of age, just after I passed Class X, I started working to support myself. I wanted to do well and be respected in the community for my own achievements,” she says.

She worked in the local tourism industry. This helped her pick up conversational English, the fundamentals of customer service and communication skills. And when an opportunity came up in 2008 to work at the Gulf Hotel in Bahrain, Kalpana and her friend took it. “The salary was higher and with food and other amenities provided for, I could save well,” she explains.

But wasn’t she worried about managing in a new country?

“When you are young and inexperienced, people may try to take advantage of you. But I had work experience and could handle difficult situations,” she observes confidently.

She now works as a senior waitress, handling corporate events. “I get to meet a lot of people and it helps me understand what service is and what tourists want. This is very valuable education,” she says.

And with her savings she has bought a piece of land in Kathmandu. In a few years, she plans to construct her house on one floor and an office on another to run a tourism-related business.

“I am now building a network, developing contacts and saving money to start my own services business — travel agency, tourist transportation and other related services and may be also an internet centre.”

She adds that there are not many jobs available in Nepal and hopes that her business will help provide some employment. “You cannot succeed all alone in business. You need the support of family and community.

This is true for both men and women. I am hoping that I will get lots of support to be successful,” she says optimistically.

Marriage didn’t stop her studies

K Malarvizhi was married when she was only 19 years old, just after completing her school education and a certificate course in catering, in Chennai. But she was determined to study further despite the demands of marriage and raising two children. “I enrolled in a correspondence course and completed BA in History. Then I did MA and M Phil,” she says.

The family was saddled with personal loans due to a failed business. So money was tight and she paid her fees with cash earned from her catering service business — serving food to singles working in IT firms.

She also sold artificial jewellery and conducted tuition classes late in the evenings for the neighbourhood students.

With all this, how did she find the time to study? “There is always the night. I studied late into the night and woke up at two in the morning while appearing for exams,” she says.

She is thinking of taking up a teaching job in a nearby school and is preparing to appear for her PhD entrance exam in May. “I want to do my PhD in Tourism. Education has given me a lot of confidence to talk to people and try new things,” she says.

Making a mark in business

R Radhika of Tindivanam, Tamil Nadu, was just 19 years old when she failed her school finals and married her differently-abled sweetheart against her family’s wishes. A daughter born right after the wedding and her husband’s difficultly in finding a job left her in a financially difficult situation.

She started working with women’s self-help groups in the area.

“My husband is a commerce graduate and he taught me the basics of accounting. It was very helpful when working with the women’s groups,” she says.

Social work interested her and she completed her BA in the subject. She also took a six-month course on NGO management.

“We analysed why our skill training programmes do not yield good results. What we found was that the women were not able to find employment,” she says. So, she started a small unit to make sanitary napkins with a loan for ₹50,000 taken through a self-help group. It later expanded with a total investment of ₹2 lakh; the factory now produces 50,000 pieces a month and employs 10 women. “We sell our products locally and also get orders from hospitals,” she says.

Radhika also tried her hand at politics and contested the State assembly elections in 2010. Now, she is full time into social work in health and hygiene, organic farming, skill training and raising awareness on government schemes. She is encouraging her two girls, who are in Class VI and Class IX, to study agriculture and become IAS officers. “If you are in power, you can make a big difference at a wider level,” she advises them.

From a small town to the IT hub

Divya G, a native of Ramnagar in Magadi Taluk, Karnataka, was in Class X when she attended a career planning programme organised by Chiguru, a non-profit organisation. Given her good academic performance, she was asked to consider engineering as a career. “I was not sure what it meant to be an engineer, but decided to try it,” she says.

However, her father, who was a farmer and mother, a cook in a mid-day meal scheme, were reluctant to send her out of the village. But her determination, along with support from non-profits such as Prerna, helped her enrol in the Government Women’s Polytechnic, Bengaluru. She received her diploma and then joined engineering at SJT College. She now works with iGate in the city.

She is putting away a portion of her salary for further studies. “I want to improve my English and develop my soft skills. And do a Masters to enhance my technical knowledge,” she says. Divya is forming a small group to provide scholarships for less-privileged students in college. She is also providing career counselling services and mentoring students in her village. “With education you can think maturely about the future, do the right things to take care of yourself,” she says.

Tailoring her future

Neela Dhrubhai Muda, who lives in a small village called Khori Faliya Warna in Gujarat, was also driven by a desire to earn. Her household constitutes 11 people, including her two children and an extended family of in-laws. “I would do housework and work on the farm. But during the lean farming season, there was extra time,” she says. She wanted to utilise it productively and add to the family’s income.

So, when she heard of a tailoring programme in Silvassa, nearly 20 km away, she was eager to join it. But it required taking the bus and walking, in all two hours of travel each way and spending ₹50 daily. She finally joined it after LabourNet, a social enterprise that ran the skill development centre, convinced her of the programme’s effectiveness.

“I was scared to go to a new place. I did not understand what they taught. But the trainer was very kind and helped greatly,” she recalls.

After completing training, Neela Ben started her own tailoring shop by borrowing ₹10,000 from Sakhi Mandal, a self-help group. In just two months, she earned enough to repay half the loan. She then trained a girl in the village to help her in the shop.

She borrowed ₹50,000 more to buy another machine. She also opened a kirana store.

“I want to buy cloth, stitch it and sell as readymade,” she says confidently.

Published on January 24, 2018

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