I gently peel a shiny blue sequin from Nandini’s forehead and she coo’s while staring intently at her mother who is sitting cross-legged on floor in the Girls Can Be room. I m sitting with my back against the wall watching as 10 women sit in a circle, some sewing, some laughing. Children wander through the door and down the hallway, some looking for their mothers and many just curious. The new centre draws women and children from up and down the lane ways eager to find out what’s going on. New women come everyday, nervous and anxious to see if there is work for them. All are invited in and greeted by Indu, Shashi and Mommie ji (the affectionate name they call my mother).
With renovations finished on the new room over a month ago and our newly donate industrial sewing machines in place, Girls Can Be is officially open. The idea of a “women’s centre” has been realized and now the real work begins. The women will be able to work in their own community earning money for their families in a clean and safe environment.
To start we needed products, something simple made with inexpensive raw materials which would provide a new skill. Most of the women have never before sewn or created anything. Training would be a process when tying a small bow with a piece of colourful ribbon produced confusion. A local garment factory gave us scraps of fabric enabling my mother and Sarah Petrescu (volunteer from Canada) the means to create and experiment with Indu and Shashi. A few long days and several creations later GCB had its first set of prototypes! A line of recycled gift items created from used plastic bags and fabric scraps provided the women with an opportunity to be creative, have fun and see their product to completion, producing buckets full of beautiful, one of a kind little art pieces.
Indu and Shashi have been appointed as the managers of the centre and quickly took expert control of training the women to make products. To begin,several of the smaller piece work was handed out to women so they could work from home. Every morning a lineup would form and women were handed sequins, needles and material with instructions on how to finish the work. The following morning, mothers clutching babies with children by their side, excitedly holding their finished piece work, would arrive eager for more work. As the number of women interested in work grew rapidly overnight, Indu, Shashi and my mother designed more products so we could keep the women working and offer employment to as many as possible. Within the first week we hired four women to work full-time in the centre with another 20 working on piece work from their homes. The community was buzzing with excitement as we offered a much higher rate of pay than any other company. The work is interesting and creative and the women love the products. Before GCB, many women in the community worked on orders from large factories that employed them to sew the buttons on shirts, cut plastic off factory moulded pieces for machinery or work on highly priced “Italian” shoes for a pittance. These women would work all day to fill a huge bag of finished pieces, their fingers raw, and be lucky to see 60 INR – $1.22 CDN for their efforts, and many times saw their pay packets cancelled or held back if a deadline was not met.
Work in the GCB centre is fun and relaxed. Indu and Shashi open at 9 am by cleaning the centre and the rest of the women arrive at 10 am after feeding their children and dropping them off at school. The space (250 sq. ft) is clean, bright and comfortable. Their small children are allowed to be in the centre and are often found playing in the hallway. The centre has become a meeting spot for many women and even though they are allowed to take certain products back to their home to work they choose to sit together laughing and gossiping and taking the opportunity to teach my mother Hindi. A brilliant blend of colourful sari’s sit huddled together, stitching, stuffing and smiling.
With the relentless demand for work from the centre we have looked to volunteers from Mumbai to help us find places to sell our products in this giant city and also to help the women create products which would sell in the Indian market. Aarti Karlo, (a clothing designer from Mumbai), has been working with the women for the past few weeks designing fabric items combined with embroidery. Buckets overflow with beautiful birds, fish, stars and hearts, embellished with tiny sequins. Gift wallets, especially designed for the Indian market are worked on by as many as four women during the process producing a beautiful envelope to enclose money or gift certificates on special occasions.
A booth at the Mumbai Christmas Fest last weekend was a huge success with lots of products sold and great feedback from the hordes of ex-pats and wealthy Mumbaikars who attended. On Monday, when we told the women how much we sold, they clapped and giggled. We set up a booth at the offices of Shopper’s Stop thanks to Jaita Guhu who volunteers in the community as a painting teacher. Her co-workers generously supported us by buying products and donating used clothing to the community. Next up is the Holiday Inn location this weekend. The Holiday Inn (a four star hotel) has welcomed us in to their lobby for 20 days to sell our products to their guests (foreigners and Indian business people). Some of the women will be helping us at this location allwong them to be part of the sales process and the business side of Girls Can Be. The excitement is building for this event with ribbon, thread, and scraps of fabric flying around the room getting tangled in the little toes of the children who continue to be curious about what we do in this magic room.
It has been a great first month at Girls Can Be. We have employed many women with ongoing training who have made buckets of products while holding babies, and paid all their wages from the sales of the goods. The women’s enthusiasm will sustain the mood and enjoyment while the sales of the products will sustain Girls Can Be.