AHMEDABAD, India (TrustLaw) - The fire in the dark eyes of Poormina Sharma was hard not to notice.
"It's easy to learn English," she said in Hindi and furiously scrawled the name of a “teach yourself English” book on a piece of paper.
"I can help you," she added, as she handed the paper to an eager and curious would-be student. Poormina, a 21-year-old engineering student, was talking to a woman more than a decade older than herself- - 34-year-old Shamentala, a candlestick maker.
Clad in traditional saris and churdiars, Shamentala and some 30 other women were huddling in a bare room in the head office of the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) in Ahmedabad.
Founded here in 1972, SEWA trains self-employed women across India to develop skills so that they can earn money through home-based work, small businesses and manual labour.
Shamentala and others in her class have been learning skills such as how to make necklaces, work at beauty parlours and do mahndi (hand painting).
Having such skills and jobs is already a big step forward for these women, not only because many of them could not finish high school due to poverty but also because they have to break down barriers in India’s traditionally patriarchal society.
Learning English potentially opens up a whole new world. "I want to learn how to speak in English and use computers," Shamentala said in Hindi. "They are the future."
Many of the women coming to SEWA are married and mothers at a young age, with much of their wages going helping to pay for their children’s education.
They told TrustLaw it was their desire to see their daughters, in particular, finish school that pushed them to seek work despite the initial disapproval of their husbands.
"We have seen other girls in our neighbourhood going to school," Shamentalasaid. "If others can send their daughters to school, why can't we?"
WOMEN HELPING WOMEN
The very thought of finding jobs and eventually working would require the consent of their husbands, though.
The 2001 National Policy for the Empowerment of Women in theory realises the rights of women but real life can be very different in a country where traditionally women are seen as the property of their fathers, brothers and husbands and do not have much say over their lives.
"Most of us don't even know the outside world," Shamentala said.
She said that to convince their husbands to let them work, the women talk to the men together in groups.
They emphasise that other women in the community have also undergone SEWA's training. "We tell them other women are going so they allow us," she said.
Women helping women is a winning strategy for SEWA.
Pratibha Pandya, SEWA administrative officer, said it is tough to convince some women to try things other than domestic work.
"For some of them, it is their first time seeing women holding a camera," she said. These little things are sometimes enough to pique their interest and convince them to join the program, she added.
Shamentala, with other women, now makes incense sticks at home, earning 1,500 rupees ($33) per month. Aeybon, a 50-year-old mother of four, said that they start making incense sticks when their children are in school or are asleep.
"We put our 1- and 2- year-olds in a swing, and when we see they're asleep, we start work," she said with a laugh. She said they could produce around 5,000 incense sticks in four hours and get 10 rupees per 1,000 pieces.
Aeybon and Shamentala have been with SEWA for five years, doing the same thing.
Earnings from making incense sticks have helped them send their children to school and augment the family budget but there is the question of what other skills they can learn to progress.
That question is even more relevant to younger members of SEWA, some of whom are in their early to mid-20s. Some workers eventually become community leaders and facilitators after additional training on communication and social interaction, said Pandya.
Bhasti, a 26-year-old incense stick maker, prides herself for knowing a little bit of English because she was able to finish high school. Poverty kept her from pursuing college studies and she has been making incense sticks since she was 21-years-old.
Pandya said SEWA works towards upgrading the traditional skills of its members--for example, through computer training--but low levels of education remain a big hurdle.
(Additional reporting by Gaurav Nigam)
Purple S. Romero is a Manila-based journalist