There’s a very special energy when you enter the blue-washed Saheli Centre where the Saheli Women come to work each day on their partner’s ethical fashion collections. I'm worlds away from my home and instantly immersed in the sounds of the sewing machines, the laughter and animated conversations, women coming together to learn and empower themselves and each other. And I couldn't be more grateful for the women I'm with right now.
I've arrived in Bhikamkor with Madhu Vaishnav, the fiercely passionate and extraordinary powerhouse behind the NGO, IPHD, and the female empowerment projects here in this village in rural Rajasthan, and also my go-to working long distance on the ethical fashion collections that are made by Saheli Women for Tulasii.
Madhu’s mother-in-law grew up in this small house in Bhikamkor before she left to the big ‘Blue City’ of Jodhpur in search of a better life for her children. The house had been empty for a while when Madhu, visiting the village with her husband, saw the perfect place in it for the local women to gather.
A walk through Bhikamkor village brings us to the women’s family homes, where we are happily handed all the newborn goats to cuddle (so many goats – December in Rajasthan, it seems, is not only wedding season but baby animal season!). We are welcomed inside with the requisite chai at every stop, and we get to see firsthand all of the remarkable improvements these projects have brought to the lives of the women and their families. As Madhu explains, the more the women have learned through these ethical fashion partnerships, the more change has been felt throughout the village. The new source of income has allowed them to improve their family's living situations – be it a sanitary toilet, a functioning kitchen, or an extension providing an extra room where before, the family had lived and slept in one small space.
IPHD has also overseen the implementation of a girls’ education project that is encouraging more young girls from the village to attend school, employing a small group of Bhikamkor women, some who work as education advocates, others as full-time school teachers and one as the Saheli Community Center librarian. There's also a Women’s Health Clinic, Bhikamkor’s first and only gynecology health center, where we spent the next day.
The women’s health clinic provides invaluable medical services and assistance to the local women, many who are below the poverty line in rural Rajasthan. A female doctor and nurse attend the clinic a few times each month, helping to address the most pressing health problems in Bhikamkor, where anemia, malnutrition, and gynecological issues are at a high rate, stemming from low health literacy, diets that are low in nutritional value, and inadequate health care services.
Back at the Saheli Centre, I am reminded again what it is to be with people who have very little and yet give so much when the beautiful Rukiya, who oversees quality control on all of Tulasii's designs, took me aside late in the afternoon when she realised I was sick (I had bronchitis after weeks of travel and work in India), and that I had not eaten all day. Welcoming me into her humble home, a short stroll away from the centre, she laid out a mat on the floor of her tiny kitchen, and cooked me chapati and sabzi on her small gas stove, while her young kids ran around, seizing the moment to practise counting to 20 with me, as we all communicated with giggles and rudimentary Hindi/English. It’s incredible just how much you can connect without the need for words, but with simple heartfelt gestures - two women, two mothers, sitting together, sharing food, silently acknowledging our differences while honouring each other as complete equals.
Simple. Heartfelt. Real.
So, this is Saheli Women - the beautiful, strong, determined women behind the Tulasii ethical loungewear robes. These are their stories and their faces, their places and their people - images and moments from our few days spent amongst them in a little blue village in the desert of Rajasthan that stole my heart.
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