The Covid-19 pandemic has caused immense job and income loss across states in India. In Tamil Nadu alone, 53 per cent of households had at least one member lose their job during the first lockdown in 2020. At such a time, the Industree Foundation has been helping rural women find livelihoods through a program that has been designed to empower women artisans.
The “Producer Owned Women Enterprises” or POWER program has been launched by Industree in partnership with USAID aims to empower 50 million women across the developing world by 2025 through eco-friendly rural livelihood solutions that cater specifically to women. The primary aim of the program is to build women women-owned enterprises and connect them to national and international supply chains.
Under the project, women are given training and assistance to gain the required skills and network necessary to become entrepreneurs. Apart from the training and assistance, women who are part of the POWER project also get paid according to the number of products they produce without having to work out distribution or marketing of the product.
Poornapechi, weaver from Madurai, managed to earn Rs 11,000 in one month despite first Covid-19 lockdown. Known for making lampshades, Poornapetchi works in the bamboo value chain of POWER, the others being banana bark and nontimber forest produce.
“I used to work at a garment factory earlier and worked long hours in poor conditions. My husband is a daily wage worker. The money was not good and we often struggled to make ends meet," Poornapechi said. It was only after she heard about the POWER program that she decided to quit the factory and start working with Industree’s Green Kraft unit.
While Poornapechi had initially been impressed by the additional PF and other benefits offered by Industree, she soon discovered her true passion was in weaving. While most weavers manage to make just one lampshade a day, Porrnapechi makes two, earning her the distinction of being a star performer.
The founder of Industree Neelam Chibber however told News18 that economic self-sustenance was the key to empowering women in rural India. Thus while Industree supports the women for the initial few years, the ultimate goal is to make their collectives self-sustainable and self-standing. “We believe that women who are 5th or 12th standard graduates might not have the ability to compete in global supply chains with their products so it is very important that if we want to bring this change using professional support and management programs," Chibber said.
Over the years, Industree has worked with over 10,000 women and impacted over 170000 women through its programs and initiatives. Once the women start working across the supply chains, many rise in ranks and may even become trainers and team leaders. And the organisation has proved vital for many women through the months of the lockdown which put many of their husbands out of work.
Thilgavathy, a basked weaver and mother of two, told News18 that it was important to provide work from home solutions to women artisans. “I started working with Industree in December 2019, right before the Covid-19 crisis hit. My husband and I were deep in debt. The option to work from home saved our family," Thilgavathy said.
While some like Thilgavathy got lucky, millions of women across the world are currently facing the brunt of the pandemic in the form of job loss. A working paper by researchers of Azim Premji University published earlier in April found that women were seven times more likely to lose their jobs due to national lockdown than men.
“What we see is a diminishing size of women in the labour force in India during COVID. Pre-covid, India’s participation in the labour force was quite dismal but the pandemic has made it worse," Chibber told News18. To tailor programs to aimed at increasing labour participation of women, it may become important to consider models of skill training and employment that can be done remotely from their hometown without expecting them to move to cities.
“Additionally, about 30 per cent of the women we work with are single, widowed or separated and a majority of them have only basic primary education. It is important to take measures that help them get access to livelihoods at a time when jobs are running out".
From the beginning of the first national lockdown in March 2020 to March 2021, the POWER project has supported and mobilised 2,859 women.