The morning is in full swing at Kiran. Sitting in the middle of the room, Kashvi is crocheting colourful yarn into egg-shaped balls that will become owls and octopi. Next to her, Eva is sewing a handbag from cloth with a delicate floral design set against a white background.
Near the window, Anaya has stopped sewing a pocket into a handbag to examine the design of a layered necklace made from recycled sari cloth. Her fingers run the length of a strand of cloth beads before stopping to prod at an individual bead.
“There must be something wrapped inside of this,” she says, before passing it on to the next seamstress for consultation. In their own casual, but expert, way these women are reverse-engineering products like this necklace all the time.
Kiran is a not-for-profit business started by the staff at Shalom, an NGO working with HIV/AIDS-affected families, transgenders and anyone requiring palliative care.
A not-for-profit business turns all of its profit back into good for charitable organisations. Kiran takes that one step further by hiring all its seamstresses via referrals from the hospital where Shalom works. All the Kiran women have been affected by life-altering illnesses and the money they are paid for their sewing allows them to provide for their families.
Geeta and Sunita were already working for Shalom when they were asked to establish Kiran. They had no business experience, but both had been playing with sewing and tailoring since childhood, making them the most qualified Shalom staff to start the project. Sheeba joined Kiran last October to oversee the business. All three are pictured at the top of this story.
Sunita says: “NGOs talk a lot about starting income generation programmes. But they need to actually do it. It’s more challenging. In an NGO, you just teach and give to people. But here, we expect something back from them. They have to work.”
The change has been uncomfortable for Shalom staff members. Before this, Sheeba was working with churches in a traditional ministry role. Now she spends much of her day overseeing inventory, pricing and tracking sales. In the beginning it was a difficult transition. However, she’s slowly come to appreciate aspects of working in a business setting. “We’re with these women every day, offering them a chance to provide for their families,” she reflects.
No one currently working for Kiran knew how to sew when they were taken on. They’ve each been trained, slowly adding to the designs they can make. When they began, they were assured they wouldn’t be fired if they learned the required sewing too slowly. This allowed them to relax into the job. At the end of their first year, each new seamstress is given a test to see how well she can make each design. If she passes, she’s given a small raise.
Geeta and Sunita are responsible for all the designs. They find ideas at exhibitions or online and then deconstruct the examples to work out how to make the product.
As their seamstresses have gained experience, their designs have become more complicated. Now their products have expanded beyond their initial cloth handbags and coin purses to include drawstring backpacks and harem pants.
Working for Kiran hasn’t just given the women an income - for some, it's given them a chance to dream of the future.
In a back corner, Larisa is sewing one of Kiran’s simplest designs – a coin purse. Her ruler is attached to her desk by a long strip of scrap cloth. “I was wasting half the day looking for it!” she laughs.
Larisa was referred to Kiran when she came into Shalom’s hospital without anyone to provide for her. She’d spent her marrying years caring for her brother’s family. However, when she was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer, they abandoned her. After surgery, she began working at Kiran to provide for herself. Learning sewing has given her an even bigger idea.
“I’m going to learn this so well and start my own business,” she says excitedly. “And every time I make money, I’m going to give a part of it to someone who’s in a bad situation like I was. I’m going to become such a good businesswoman that hundreds of people will come to me and even my family will notice.”
Larisa’s experience isn’t unusual. The illnesses most of these women deal with cause a lot of stigma. They cannot be open with their communities or, sometimes, even their extended family members about what they’re dealing with.
Because its roots are in an NGO, Kiran’s human resources practices are more gracious than would be expected at a regular business. The work environment has been carefully developed around being open and supportive.
“When I come here, all my troubles seem far away,” reflects Mishka, as she adds the straps to a handbag. She recently had to take three months off because her health had deteriorated. She was grateful to find her job waiting for her when she came back.
The family experience of Kiran is nowhere more evident than at lunch time, when everyone sits in a circle on the floor and opens what they've brought – some variation of curried vegetables and roti or rice. Lids are passed around as people give and take a portion of one another’s vegetable dish.
As the women eat, one woman shares about a fight with her husband the previous night. Sheeba shares how what she’s been studying in her church’s small group might apply to her situation. Someone else chimes in with her experience of domestic violence.
Another woman talks about her forthcoming trip to her home village and bemoans the fact that the government hospital hasn’t given her enough medicine for the long trip.
“Well, you’ll just have to come back early,” another group member advises. “You can’t stop taking the medicine. That is really bad.”
For many of these women, Kiran is the only place they can be open about all of their challenges and receive love and knowledgeable advice in return.
Just like their beaded necklace or harem pants designs, Kiran is deconstructing and putting back together what it means to run a business and think about ministry at the same time. They’re creating an environment that provides for and supports women who are facing huge challenges. And because of these commitments, they can produce not just beautiful products but beautiful dreams as well.
Kiran was started by Shalom, an NGO partner project of SIM India and run by the Emmanuel Hospital Association. For more information and to see the products created by the seamstresses at Kiran, go to their website or like them on Facebook.