- Jonit Bookheim
- 03 Oct, 2012
Sunita was an artisan, making jewelry by hand, with a horrible boss who would often pay her less than what she was owed or would delay payment or wouldn’t pay her at all. If she tried to contest, he would shoot her down with his “abusive manner of talking,” as she puts it. She dealt with it for a long time because she was poor and needed the money. She had no education and didn’t think she had any other options. Then, six years ago, she found out about our jewelry partner, a 40-year-old advocacy organization supporting artisans in their efforts to secure labor rights through fair trade.
By her own admission, Sunita was very shy back then. She was so scared the first time she went to talk with the organization’s social workers – what would they ask her? What they did was help her to set up her own artisan cooperative based on fair trade principles.
That’s when Sunita started Sunita Handicrafts Group. It wasn’t an easy endeavor. At first, only 1 other person joined the group. As their orders grew, Sunita began to try to recruit more members. She asked women who were living in the same slum area as she was, which is also where the co-op had been set up. She knew that these women were in need of income to help support their families. But here’s where the challenging part came in: the women couldn’t leave their homes. Social norms and their own fears prohibited them from leaving the house for work. Sunita didn’t give up, though. She talked to the women and their families and told them that it would be safe to join the cooperative. She taught them about fair trade, that it ensures good working conditions and doesn’t allow children to work.
Now Sunita Handicrafts Group has 15 members (men and women) and life has changed significantly for each of them. Sunita says that their income has allowed them to reach “a level of good living” where they can feed their families and educate their children. Not only that, together they are saving for the future and preparing for unexpected expenses. Each member of Sunita Handicrafts contributes 100 rupees (about two dollars) once or twice a month to what they call a ‘Self-Help Group’ (kinda like a group savings account), and the umbrella organization matches half. The artisans can take out a no-interest loan from the account. Also, members of Sunita Handicrafts and their families have health insurance through the organization’s group plan.
Nowadays, Sunita is approached regularly by people in the community who want to join her group, but she is limited by product demand; there is just not enough work available to employ more people. This hasn’t stopped Sunita from doing more to help. This once shy woman is now a leader in her community, organizing some amazing and ambitious projects that I’ll tell you all about in an upcoming blog post (a new medical center, vocational training programs, micro-credit for small businesses, etc – a topic deserving of its own post).
When I visited Sunita Handicrafts recently, Sunita gave me a directive: give them more work. I told her we’re trying! Now it’s up to you. Support fair trade and know that your purchase directly lifts families out of poverty and provides opportunity for the next generation.
Here’s Sunita in her own words (Hindi with English subtitles) talking about starting her artisan cooperative and working in the community.