A Visit to Prowess
Fifty Kilometres of a twisty climb in a car with no seatbelts and a reckless driver brought about many emotions; fear for our lives, awe for the beauty passed of long waterfalls, forrest greenery, monkeys and beautiful mountains and anticipation of what we would find at the top of the mountain providing we would survive.
At last, after two hours we arrive in Kodiakanal, a town like no other we have visited in India, so far. Houses seem to be built into the walls of the mountain. We feel the cool, peaceful breeze as we open the car door, soothing our troubled nerves. There is a huge shortage of water here and are encouraged not to take unnecessary showers.
We are taken on a short drive to a street of a few shops. Stairs lead us up three floors to a room lined with shelves of folded fabric in many colours and designs. Treadle sewing machines take up the floor space in rows. Young women diligently working, chatting, smiling and welcoming.
We are greeted at the door by Tiku, a small, greying woman. Phillipe, her husband too. This couple started Prowess some years ago to help exploited women to find empowerment through their sewing skills, enabling their children to attend school and even university. Some of these women come from homes too poor to have a dowry provided for them so are in danger of being married off to older, abusive men who have no respect for them. Through Prowess some have been saved from such a fate. The women are encouraged to pay off their sewing machines so that when they leave, they can take their own machines with them to give them independence and an ability to find work anywhere they choose.
If the women leave, they replace themselves. Profit is shared between the workers. They are paid per hour. Price is kept the same for 1 year. Prices go up but they try to keep these prices steady according to the cost of living. When a girl has a baby, she stops work for 3 months, then takes work home. They have their own bank account and OAF (Old Age Fund). The company gives a loan for a house empowering the women as some husbands are physical and/or mentally abusive. The idea is to pull them up into the middle class if they want. They are supported by a Catholic organization who support many NGOs.
At the end of the room are three other rooms. One a small toilet and utility room, one an office and the other another work room. The atmosphere is busy and harmonious. We meet Shanti, a woman who has come through a difficult time to become independent as a widow and able to support her family. She is being trained by Tiku to take over Prowess in the future. Shanti is very open to using more organic fabrics and new ideas.
We take time to look at the finished toys the women have made and selected some as samples. Purses, bags, mobiles, sitting frog, owl and pussycat puppets, colourful children’s aprons, mermaid, pregnant doll, starfish, whale, cat, monkeys. We also place an order for bunting and children’s cloth books.
Sushila is the oldest woman here. She has 20 years of tailoring experience making toys, quilting and embroidering.
“It’s like being in a family. The worst punishment is to work at home because of the support of the board and community. They guarantee that the earnings come into our hands each 30th of the month. I am an only daughter. Father passed 5 years ago so am supporting my mother. I am not married.”
Kala is a recent addition to the group. 11 years ago she came, and has 2 children. Her husband is supportive. He works as a school caretaker. They are sending their kids to college to learn computers and to study for diplomas in Computer Science and Commerce. Their daughter is 21 years old. Kala came to Prowess through a contact. She used to sew on the road. One of the teachers at the school brought her saying, she is a good worker. She does piece work. She likes making quilts best. This work is a big help in putting her children through school because he husband’s salary is not enough. Kala says that when she comes here, she leaves her worries behind.
Aloysia makes penguins. Working at PROWESS gives her independence as her parents are dead and she would otherwise be in the control of her uncle who would marry her off to whoever would want her without a dowry.
Prowess is a place of hope and contentment. A home away from home for the women where they can know community and the satisfaction of work and hope.
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