It was not easy for the 17 women of the Shakti Khazana group to step out of their sari pallus, let alone the shadow of their husbands, and stand on their own feet.
But 18 years after they took that first step, these women of a Govindpuri slum in south Delhi have not just moved out of their conservative lifestyles that makes it socially necessary for them to cover their heads but are now busy taking orders from top Indian companies and offices, whipping up things like cakes and cookies and earning a decent living.
Wearing a dozen glass bangles, Manjula Singh walks around feeling quite at home at the office of Katha, the publishing house whose founder and director Geeta Dharmarajan had founded this women's cooperative back in 1990.
"We visit the office every day to deliver lunch for the staff. This is regular work, besides the various orders that we get from other companies or individuals," Manjula smiled.
Her multicoloured sari neatly pleated, she is part of the bakery team of the Shakti Khazana group. "Of the 17 women, 10 are involved in daily cooking as well as for lunches and parties while the rest are in the baking team.
"I am a part of the bakery team. We bake different kinds of cakes, biscuits and cookies. All the cooking and baking take place in the central kitchen set up by Katha at our slum," Manjula told IANS.
A self-supporting unit, the Shakti Khazana Women's Cooperative was set up in the sprawling Govindpuri slum area of Delhi by Katha with the objective of not only empowering women but also inculcating a habit of saving money among families, decreasing the dependence on moneylenders, enhancing their confidence and skills and helping develop micro-enterprise.
"The basic belief behind this project was that when women earn, children go to school. When we started our education programme in Govindpuri, the men folk were reluctant to send their children to school," said Shruti Bhattacharjee, the programme coordinator.
"They blamed their income and low resources. This made us think 'why not train the mothers?' Hence we started training the women, formed the cooperative and empowered the women of the community. Now they are absolutely on their own."
Top end companies, organisations and hotels, be it the Taj group, Airtel, Child Relief and You (CRY) or IGNOU, these women have people lining up to place orders for luncheons and parties.
Not only that, the group also handles the catering of school canteens and supplies executive lunches to various multi-national companies.
"Eighteen years ago we couldn't have thought that we would be where we are today," smiled Shivkumari, another woman of the cooperative.
"We earn nearly Rs 2,000 every month. We handle the kitchen all by ourselves as well as the finances. Not only has this initiative made us self-sufficient and enabled us to send our children to school but also earned us respect in society," she said.
Manjula, for instance, is a proud mother whose one daughter is a teacher and the other is a bakery trainer for women at the cooperative.
"Initially it was difficult convincing our husbands about our work. But despite their attitude, we used to slip out of our homes the moment they stepped out for work and come back before they returned," Urmila, clad in a sky blue sari, told IANS.
"This continued for some time until they realised we were actually helping them in managing the finances and they started supporting us. Since then we have never looked back," she added.
The women of the bakery team are trained by chefs of the fivc-star Taj Mahal hotel in the capital for three months before they start supplying food items like cake, pastries, puffs and cookies to them.
"Among all our items, the bread-pakoda was the most sought after at the Taj hotel. Just that while they bought from us at the rate of Rs 2.50 per piece, they sold them at a higher price of Rs 12. When we said we wanted to increase our price, they stopped buying bread-pakodas from us!" said Shivkumari.
The women also supply pickles and squashes.
But one of the greatest challenges these women face is the marketing of their products. "We haven't been able to market our products well to match up to the products in the market, but we are trying," said Urmila.
And they have one request.
"If housewives can come forward and teach us some of their skills, it will greatly benefit us. We would be indebted to them forever," said Shivkumari.
(Azera Rahman can be contacted at email@example.com )