In colourful Kutch, women lead the way
Women are leading a quiet revolution on the fringes of the India-Pakistan border in Gujarat. Economically empowered through handicrafts and embroidery in virtually every home, they have as much say in their households as men.
A predominantly Dalit village, Ludiya is one of the many villages in Bhuj district that were devastated by the earthquake in Gujarat in 2001.
Seven years on, a look at the beautifully painted mud huts, a bustling school, and you know they rebuilt the village with ample help from the women folk.
"After the earthquake, we thought that it was the end. Our homes were destroyed completely. But when some NGOs came forward to help us, we collected pieces of our broken hopes and started rebuilding our village," Khaju Kaya, one of the village elders, told IANS.
"The women kept bringing in the money with their handicrafts and made all of this possible," he added.
Kutch district is well known for exquisite handicrafts and intricate embroidery. Although the villagers sell these handicrafts in the towns and cities through middlemen, many tourists have now started visiting the villages to buy the ware.
Natha Behn, a 20-year-old, is one of the many who embroiders dresses and weaves rugs and quilts in her tiny home in the village.
"It takes a month to make a kanjari (long blouse), complete with the embroidery and the mirror work. It costs me about Rs 200 and I sell it for Rs.600-700. I also make bags, blankets, dolls, cushion covers and other items," Natha Behn said.
"My monthly earning comes to around Rs 1, 000. My husband herds cattle. But more often than not, I earn more than him," she added with pride.
Anjuri Kaya, well in her 50s, sat inside her hut, concentrating on her embroidery.
"We prefer selling our ware to visitors who buy from us directly rather than to middlemen. Since we earn equally, we have a say in all household decisions as well," Kaya said.
"Things become difficult during monsoons. There is water everywhere and we have no option but to sell our things at a much cheaper rate to the middlemen. Otherwise things are pretty good," she added.
The women also make sure that the young girls of the village go to school along with the boys.
"The young girls go to school and are not taught the art of embroidery and making handicrafts. But once they attain puberty, they start doing so and drop out of school," Natha Behn said smiling at her 14-year-old sister-in-law.
Pavitran Vittal, an official of the state's tourism ministry, said that considering Kutch's low literacy rate - 64.06 per cent for men and 40.89 per cent for women according to the 1991 census - it was encouraging to see the young girls going to school.
"The people have to understand that it's important for girls to complete their education, but this is the first step towards the right direction. Considering that women have an important say in the family, this initiative by them is a ray of hope.
"Moreover, they make sure their daughters are capable of earning their own bread and butter. They are empowered," Vittal told IANS.
Many NGOs are working with the women of Kutch to make their wares more profitable.
Kala Raksha is one such NGO, which has been working in this field for the last 15 years under the guidance of American Judy Frater. Training and supporting 1,000 women from 25 villages, the NGO sells their work not only in Indian cities but also exports them to other countries like the US.
Nilesh Priyadarshan of Kala Raksha said: "Kutch is famous for its embroidery like Kharek, Paako, Rabaari and Mutuwa. These women are trained to use their creativity in a manner that will be more saleable in the market and yet retain its original flavour.
"After doing their household chores, they come here for a few hours and take back home Rs 3, 000-5, 000 per month."
With their Kutchhi - the local language - generously garnished with English words like "No bargain", "Money", "Come and see" and "Thank you", these women are nurturing this arid place in their own way.