Real India: Confidence-building in the new "Women’s Work"

Click to listen in on Chris’s visit to the Ubuntu workshop in Ramanagar. (22 minutes, 11 mb mp3)

RAMANAGAR — We drove out about 50 kilometers south and west of Bangalore to see a busted “silk city” and a social “silver bullet” in action. Vibha Pinglé, an Indian-American scholar and activist is our guide. Ubuntu-at-Work is her NGO, with roots in the US and other branches in South Africa. It opened its sewing workshop in Ramanagar less than a year ago, one of its far-flung experiments in green manufacturing and global design for a world market. The real inspiration in Ubuntu’s third-floor community space in Ramanagar is the conviction that women’s empowerment through training and sustainable work is the ready remedy for over-population, family inequities, hunger, hopelessness and poverty, for starters.

About a dozen graceful ladies in the collective are a glimpse of the proud poverty everywhere to be seen in India. At present, the women say, they are subsisting on cash incomes in the range of $2 dollars a day. Ubuntu’s commitment is to give them each a personal stake in the production of embroidered fashions from international designers for stores in Europe and the States. The second big promise is to give the women work at home, not factory, to sustain motherhood and family life at the same time.

You can hear a lot in this visit about the indirect ways even of silver bullets. Women speak, for example, of residual family pressures to stay at home; and of the habitual payment of bribes for government jobs, and the interest payments on loans required to finance the bribes. A lot of these women are paying loan-shark rates (5 percent per month!) for their own or their children’s education – even when they call it microfinance.

Yet my other big impression from a morning in the needlework collective is that the quiet confidence they’re after is palpably here now. There’s laughter and warmth among the women that smashes our equation of poverty with unhappiness. These feel like connected, resourceful, family folk, with long experience at making do – no matter that we call them impoverished. I left their workshop wondering: is this why people say: India will grow, but it will never have a social revolution?

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