When I started discussions a little over a year ago with the nonprofit IPHD India about a possible partnership with their women's empowerment initiative, Saheli Women, I could not have envisioned just how much it would grow to become the heartbeat of the Tulasii story. On the release of our very first Tulasii X Saheli Women collection of loungewear, we celebrate their stories.
Saheli Women is an ethical fashion social enterprise run by IPHD India in the village of Bhikamkor, rural Rajasthan, India, employing over 24 rural women, providing them with fair wages, health insurance coverage and a safe work environment free from gender, religious and caste discrimination.
It's an incredible venture run by incredible people, with the founder (and Jodhpur native) Madhu Vaishnav spearheading a range of programs within Bhikamkor run by IPHD, including a community centre housing a female health clinic, Community Kitchen Garden and the production facility for ethical fashion social enterprise, Saheli Women. Saheli is the Hindi word for “female friend,” and reflects the commitment to fostering a safe space exclusively for the women and their children.
"From a young age I was attracted to social work, and I hoped to one day go into social work in some form. I founded IPHD in 2014 and began by working with victims of sex trafficking in the slums of Jodhpur," says Madhu of the IPHD India evolution. "After a year, though, I realised that it was difficult to track progress as few women would return to us more than once. For this reason, I decided to relocate to the village of Bhikamkor in 2015 and began IPHD as we know it today, complete with projects that fall under the three sectors of Education, Livelihood, and Health."
IPHD now has a strong partnership with American universities, with interns coming year round for two to six months at a time to work in Bhikamkor. "The interns work on an established project when they arrive, and eventually transfer the project to the intern who comes after them. This model is what makes IPHD a truly experiential education program, and allows students to think critically on the ground about community development," says Madhu. "The IPHD student interns played a large role in training local women to become advocates for education and health, making the entire program more sustainable and more community-rooted in the process."
This year, Madhu and the IPHD team have begun providing transportation to the government school from the farming communities where many of the schoolgirls live. "Many of the girls were previously unable to walk from the farming communities to school due to safety concerns, so a transportation service was our solution, allowing us to enrol and support about 100 girls in school," explains Madhu. "We hope to increase this number next year by providing transportation from another farming community to school. This year, we also run an anemia project in partnership with Johns Hopkins University. We hope that this project will improve our overall female health clinic, and allow students to view anemia in the village from a multi-disciplinary lens."
Through their work with a small batch of dedicated designers from around the world who are supporting the Saheli Women story, including Tulasii, IPHD has been able to purchase professional, high-speed sewing machines, for the Saheli Center women. "Additionally, we have provided the women with training on how to use this new machinery, and they have consequently improved their skillsets and increased the speed of production," Madhu says.
"My driving motivation for the Saheli Center is the women who work there themselves. These ladies are always ready to take on any challenge. Working with our fashion partners allows us to give consistent work to the women in the Saheli Center, which ultimately provides their monthly wage. Work from our clients also allows the women to practice new techniques on western styles that were previously unfamiliar to them. New clients also provide skills training for our ladies for any new design, which allows them to increase their skill set and make mistakes in a positive environment."
The Tulasii partnership with Saheli Women has more exciting collections to come, continuing the story. Every piece is made by hand (with a whole lot of heart and soul).
With the two strong and independent managers of the Saheli Center, Rukiya and Geeta, driving quality control and production, it's inspiring to see how Saheli Women are growing and evolving, and to play, in our own way, a part in their journey as a group. "Rukiya and Geeta oversee all productions, track who made which garments for salary day, cut fabrics for new designs, and check all production for quality before they are sent out to the client. They also train new women who join the Center," says Madhu, adding that Saheli Women is, as a whole, a team of strong women. "In the Saheli Center, everyone is seen as a leader and has equal rights to raise their voice and share their views."
IPHD’s vision is for a sustainable and equitable India free from poverty, with Saheli Women helping to initiate genuine, positive change – feel-good fashion at its core – to offer the women both self-determination and community-based growth for their families. "The ladies in the Saheli Center are my life and inspiration!," says Madhu. "They are beyond words, and it is something that you must personally feel when you interact with them. They are the strongest women I know, and they inspire me every day."
Click HERE to see the first of our loungewear robes made by Saheli Women, and follow the journey. By supporting this collection, we are supporting real, positive change for these women and their families.