For centuries, women in the harsh deserts of Rajasthan, India, embroidered richly-colored mirror-work garments for their own use, saving the best for their daughters’ dowries.
Across the border, too, .
In India, .
And in Nepal, earthquake-affected communities, displaced from their mountain homes, have tied up with the country's largest industrial house to market pure honey and other natural produce.
In just 30 years, the country’s famed Aarong brand has grown from being a simple promoter of handicrafts into one of the country's largest retail chains, recording sales of over $50 million in 2013.
Still, most of South Asia’s rural communities have not been able to make this leap. In village after village, women sit cloistered after a hard day’s work, to sew, embroider, weave, or paint, earning a pittance for their labor. Often, they cultivate natural farm products on chemical-free soils. But, without access to markets, their remarkably uncontaminated produce earns them very little.
Showcasing the dazzling array of women’s crafts and produce
What these groups now need is an extra push to reach buyers further afield, establish productive alliances with mainstream markets and evolve from simple cottage industries into large-scale enterprises.
With this in mind, .
There, in a vibrant bazaar, the women displayed embroideries from Afghanistan, fabrics from Bangladesh, weaves from Bhutan, textiles, lamps, and baskets from India, as well as scarves from Nepal, some intriguingly made from stinging Himalayan nettle. Also on sale were renowned Afghan almonds, herbal teas from Nepal, turmeric, and ginger from India’s fully organic state of Sikkim and a host of other farm produce.
“ ,” explained Vinayak Ghatate, Senior Rural Development Specialist at the World Bank in New Delhi.
South Asia’s women - a force to reckon with
The potential is limitless. .
Sabah Nepal, a network of home-based artisans and producers, has helped 3 million women with support and trade facilitation.
And in war-torn Afghanistan, SHGs have played a crucial role in developing solidarity and economic networks to support women and families.
No small achievement in these deeply patriarchal societies! Importantly, the women’s groups also have the financial capacity to expand.
under the country’s National Rural Livelihoods Mission.
Above all, women’s collectives have stepped up to the forefront during natural disasters, helping communities recover and rebuild - critical for a region that is increasingly vulnerable to climate change.
Seeking new frontiers
To showcase the huge potential that lies embedded within the women’s weaves, prints and embroideries, the conclave held a dazzling fashion show in which fifteen of India’s leading designers created high-fashion garments incorporating their enormous diversity.
Paying tribute to the women’s skills, Rina Dhaka, a leading Indian designer, said, “ .” Mary Kathryn Hollifield, Practice Manager, South Asia, in the World Bank’s Agriculture Global Practice, agreed. “Artisans should be able to co-create with designers, whether it be in Delhi or Milan or wherever. It should happen, and it’s up to us to make it happen.”
A key feature of the conclave was that it brought together artisans from across South Asia, one of the least integrated regions in the world.
“ ? It was an amalgamation of different crafts and countries,” explained Sunil Sethi, President of the Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI), and the creative force behind the fashion show.
Helping women’s groups build productive alliances with mainstream markets
The conclave also held “interactive clinics” where women producers directly interacted with senior management of global and domestic companies, such as IKEA, HCL Foundation, Etsy, etc., to understand the systems and steps needed for cultivating sustainable business linkages with big global and domestic brands and large e-commerce platforms.
“There’s a lot more buying power in the South Asian countries now,” pointed out Gayatri Acharya, the Bank’s Lead Rural Development Economist in the region. “ .”
“In the end, what does the World Bank want?” elaborated Sethi. “ .”
Summing up, Chime P. Wangdi, Secretary General of Bhutan’s Tarayana Foundation, which works with 40 of the poorest communities in the mountain nation concluded, “ .”
Can South Asia’s women producers now take the world by storm?