The story about our fair trade and organic rugs.
The MA LOVE rugs are produced by a cooperative of women committed to empowering themselves through economic employment opportunities. Founded by Ms.Vijaya Rai in 1991, the foundation is based in Uttar Pradesh, India. This is her story.
“You take your arm over your head backward. If you touch your ear, you are 4-5 years old”. The teacher told me this when my father took me to school for the first time. There was no official record of my birth. Based on this, I was officially born in 1955.
In 1981, I taught at Magadh University, in state of Bihar, India. I was influenced by the social movement carried out by Jai Prakash Narayan. He was a legend in changing the political and social face of India. I was never interested in money or government jobs. I started taking an interest in the welfare of women from district Rohtas in 1981. These women were from the most backward, untouchable community of Bihar. Ms. V. G. Srinivasan was the program officer at Ford Foundation, a philanthropic organization from the United Kingdom. She wanted to change the life of neglected women in India, but did not find any volunteer to achieve that goal. I left my job as a teacher, and decided to work only for society. The Ford Foundation had “Nari Nidhi” [Women’s Fund], which came in very handy in meeting my goals.
There was a shortage of water in the Rohtas area. I started with the production of silk worms for the first time in the area. Slowly, it turned into a production center for silk. We were supplying our products door-to-door in the city of Varanasi. We would train the trainers, and then they would train another group of artisans. Most of them were women.
We started a health program for their children. The women would not take their young daughters to hospitals and were only concerned about the health of their sons. Gradually, they understood that daughters are equally important. We formed groups of 10, 15 and 20. They were hesitant to go to banks. Gradually, they started dealing with banks. When I saw the success of this initiative, I realized that these women could now run the mission on their own.
I wanted to take another challenge. When I realized that they have become self-efficient, I moved to the area adjoining Varanasi. I founded the foundation in 1991. There was a gentleman called Mr. Iftakhar from Chunar area. He encouraged me to come to Chunar and do something about very poor people of the region. They were mostly Muslim women, who would never leave their homes or talk to any other person outside their family. The male members of these families would work crushing stone all day. They had no work protection or health check-ups. The men would die very young with stone dust, leaving young widows and small children behind. It was very sad situation.
I started working on a smokeless stove. It was a good reason for me to enter into their homes and earn their trust. I educated them that this was good for their health too. I got financial support from All India Women Conference (AIWC) for my project. I was given National Award for introducing Bio-gas plants in these rural areas.
Chunar was renowned for making pottery. We trained between 250 to 300 women to make pottery and when the household income increased, the men stopped stone crushing.
Chunar & Mirzapur are also famous for flatweave rugs. Rajeev Gandhi Foundation helped us in training our women to learn flatweave weaving, as it was a men’s domain until then. It is a much better profession, as the women can stay at home, take care of family and household work and do the weaving at their convenience. Oxfam (India) Trust placed orders with us.
At this point we had capable weavers, and we were not organized for manufacturing and export activities. Dr. Martin Kunz was working with Fair Trade and was looking for reliable source. The women of Unnayan got training for handknotted Persian qualities, thanks to Development Commissioner (Handicrafts). BIL started placing orders with the foundation in those qualities; woolen dhuries etc and Unnayan thrived. We made products with natural undyed yarn and very colourful rugs for small kids.
The company we are working with decided to make organic carpets, which until then nobody had done. If we can get more sales of organic rugs, so that we could engage more women and make them economically independent.
The foundation has regular medical programs for the children. We have formed self-help groups of 10-20 women to help our members with banking and family issues. Our women discuss everything together and work in harmony. They help each other in whatever way they can. We also organize environment awareness, adolescence and HIV awareness programs. We have formed village libraries. We still get funding from Rajeev Gandhi Foundation and Development Commissioner (Handicrafts) from time to time.”