Hanisa Ansari was only 15-years-old when she was married and then became a mother at the tender age of 16. Like many families living in slums and rural areas of India, education was not a priority for her family. Her schooling stopped after 5th grade. But today, Ansari is a production manager at one of the cooperatives of MarketPlace, a non-profit organization, and a proud mother of four well-educated daughters.
She attributes her success to her work. Ansari says, “Looking back, the most important thing I have learned through my work is independence – to think for myself, to look at all sides before making a decision…We are not rich, we do have problems, and there will always be challenges that will come up.” She pauses.
“But my children are educated and we are a strong, close family. Every day I learn more about being the manager of my cooperative. I am happy,” she adds.
MarketPlace combines the experience of running a business with a variety of support programs for low-income women in India. The idea of MarketPlace sprouted from an Indian nonprofit, SHARE, which was founded by Pushpika Freitas and Lalita Monteiro in 1980, as a small experiment to help three low-income women in Mumbai. At SHARE, these three women began learning how to sew patchwork quilts by hand—work these women could do from home without having worry about the cost for childcare or equipment.
What started as an endeavor to support three women soon attracted the attention in slums of Mumbai teeming with many economically depraved women, who need to support their families, but confront cultural, societal and educational impediments.
Two years later, in 1982, the producers switched from patchwork quilts to apparel in an effort to increase sales, and received an overwhelming response for their products in a home sale in Chicago. This compelling response gave birth to the idea of MarketPlace. The organization was incorporated in Illinois as a nonprofit in 1986, and since then Freitas, founder MarketPlace says, “MarketPlace grew out of an urgent need. Women in the slums of Mumbai, India had to find a way to support their families. In many cases, their husbands were unemployed, poorly paid, ill, absent or abusive, leaving the family at risk, and the women faced daunting obstacles, including lack of education or training, family attitudes and societal norms.”
MarketPlace’s immediate response she says “was to come up with a way for these women to earn money.” But the platform to offer an economic opportunity was only the first step in a journey to become economically and socially empowered. The guiding philosophy of the organization is that “by owning and operating their own cooperative and participating in social development initiatives, the artisans can achieve meaningful and sustainable self-sufficiency and empowerment.”
Today, these women create apparel, accessories and home décor, and are best-known for their designs and fabrics that reflect Indian origins. Almost all of its products are hand embroidery. The focus of hand work not only generates employment for more artisans, who carve blocks, tie threads, print and dye, but it also helps to preserve some of India’s rich textile traditions, with all their history and culture, which is not a machine-printed imitation. The MarketPlace collections are marketed and sold exclusively in the United States.
How Does It Work
Since its inception, MarketPlace has grown exponentially. It currently works with 450 artisans, most of whom are women, working in 14 cooperatives, out of which there are seven fabric suppliers’ cooperatives situated all over India and six are producer cooperatives located in Mumbai and its surrounding areas. MarketPlace U.S. has worked with SHARE to offer social development support to these women, while MarketPlace Mumbai looks after the economic aspects of the enterprise and working with the groups on skill development, design, production management and quality.
The cooperatives are the heart of the organization, as here the artisans learn everything from stitches to managing finances, and making decisions about their group. The groups, Freitas says, “have grown organically starting with one group. The members of this group branched out and started groups of their own.” Often the more well-established groups help the smaller and newer branches with training or advice.
The groups here consist of women with different skills and knowledge, and they set up and run the business together. Freitas explains that “our model is based on group work – it is not one woman who has to do every aspect of the business,” and the “training” she says, “is mostly peer to peer,” and “when expanding, it is done slowly and few trainees are taken on at a time.”
The training offered here is minimal and embroidery is simple, as most women cannot wait for long training periods to earn a living. “With embroidery these artisans can start earning a living after about 5 hours of training,” says Freitas.
Artisans have the opportunity to take on more responsible roles within their cooperative. The leadership positions rotate, which enables different women to get the experience of being a leader. The cooperatives hold monthly meetings in which the member artisans discuss everything from quality control, to delivery schedules and production planning.
Representatives from the different cooperatives also hold meetings. In addition, the fabric supplier cooperatives get together with the producer cooperatives every other month to review fabric quality, delivery and payment arrangements. They also attend each others’ workshops so that they can understand the various processes, and to mingle with one another. This regular interaction brings together the different groups in the larger MarketPlace community.
Beyond Economic Opportunities
The cooperatives go beyond the business opportunities. Freitas says, “Recognizing that dignified employment is only one part of true and lasting change, MarketPlace has created a variety of support programs and structures to help the women succeed.” The personal and social development has allowed many women to make informed decisions for their communities and families. On a personal level many of these women are now keeping their children in school and outside early marriages.
Being a working mom, homemaker, and breadwinner can often be rugged for these artisans. Freitas shares the story of one of the artisan Radha Sharma, who says, “Bringing up three kids alone can be quite stressful. Today studies are much more complicated and in Mumbai there are so many distractions.” Sharma is mother of three teenage children and a supervisor of her cooperative. Among the many issues that a single mother might confront, Sharma says that some of biggest challenges that she faces are her youngest son’s concentration problems in school, the communication issues with her eldest son, and the impact of peer influence on her daughter.
Yet, Sharma has found a way to work things around. She attends stress management classes offered through MarketPlace by a local psychologist. These classes have taught her ways to communicate effectively with her two eldest children, and techniques to keep her youngest son on track. She says, “This has made such a difference. Of course there are still conflicts, but I am learning the skills to deal with them.”
The willingness to bring a change in these women extends to their community lives as well. For example through the Social Action Program, the cooperatives get involved in their communities. The cooperatives meet every month to choose a social problem, and then develop and execute a plan to tackle the problem concerning health, social and legal issues.
Recently, the cooperatives came together to protest the heinous crime of domestic violence. They organized street plays for creating awareness and educating the public about how the abuse starts and what can be done to prevent or stop it. Freitas explains, “The skills and information the women learn through running their own businesses and through the specially-designed support programs allow them to become self-reliant and self-assured agents of change, capable of making important decisions and assuming leadership positions at work and at home.”
As MarketPlace continues to help more women in their journey towards self-reliance and independence, it aims and aspires to make long-lasting and significant changes in lives in these women.