The pandemic has shown that community groups have a strong support structure for vulnerable women. Through needs assessment and training by the Community Based Organisations (CBOs), women were able to cultivate new skills and remain financially independent, even with the loss of their primary livelihood, giving them a sense of pride and empowerment. Their entrepreneurial capabilities have come to the fore as the enterprises have made money and have scaled. The support of an orchestration mechanism like CAC enables the conditions to rally funders for small grants to kick-start enterprises. Together these are individual ingredients that are critical for success.
The CAC initiative has teamed up with several community-based organisations to address the socio-economic barriers and gaps in availing healthcare and support during the pandemic. Since its inception, the collaborative has experienced an upward learning curve, helping it design better interventions to reach vulnerable women populations. Amidst the myriad and unique challenges faced by marginalised women, a common thread emerged more prominently with the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, i.e., loss of livelihood. Several success stories in CAC’s repertoire speak of livelihood support, employment generation, and community service. One such story is of Rathnamma, a 35-year-old garment worker from Kandavara Village in the Chikkaballapur district of Karnataka. Rathnamma faced the brunt of the lockdown much more severely, as both she and her husband, a manual labourer, had lost their daily wages.
Rathnamma has been an active member of the Pragathi Arogya group and the Soukhya Sanjeevini Samsthe, a CBO of sex workers, for the last two years. Her enthusiastic participation has helped her benefit from the group’s health, financial, and computer literacy sessions. It has also connected her with the CBO to share her difficulties since the onset of the COVID-19 restrictions.
Meanwhile, the CBOs were facing their own set of challenges. While distributing essential supplies to marginalised communities, they quickly realised that surgical masks, with their short lifespan, were not sustainable for distribution. They, therefore, requested Rathnamma to stitch 500 washable and reusable cloth masks. Out of the 500 masks that Rathnamma produced for Soukhya Sanjeevini Samsthe, 300 were distributed to marginalised community members by facilitators, the board of directors, peer educators, and volunteers. Local donors from the Chikkaballapur block agreed to financially support Rathnamma’s venture by transferring INR 5,000 directly into her bank account to fund the manufacturing process.
This project supported Rathnamma’s family and provided crucial protective equipment to vulnerable communities during the pandemic. The mantra of the community is “Stay safe, spread love.” This has never been more relevant than now. “Being a member of the Soukhya Sanjeevini Samsthe helped me acquire and cultivate new skills to become financially independent. During COVID-19, I was able to utilise my skills to save my family’s livelihood.”
A similar story comes from Sri Lakshmi Pengal Munnetra Sangam (SLPMS), a CBO working with 2,300 individuals from various vulnerable communities-such as sex workers and people living with HIV (PLHIV), Transgenders (TGs), Gay Men (MSM), etc. SLPMS created a forum for these communities to voice their problems and jointly mobilise to come together and work on a solution. For the communities that SLPMS worked with, the pandemic completely altered their way of life. A majority of the 2,300 individuals depended on sex work for their daily income. The pandemic drastically affected them, leaving many community members without food or shelter.
In the early days of the pandemic, CAC, Godrej, and Give India supported the community by donating food kits, but that wasn’t enough. They needed jobs to enable them to earn even INR 100 a day. The SLPMS team knew that some community members learned how to tailor and had fair experience in sewing. SLPMS saw this as an opportunity to create jobs for community members. Noticing an increase in the demand for masks, a Tailoring Unit was set up in September 2020 in Madurai. SLPMS faced several challenges when setting this up. One of them was that the individuals who had previously owned sewing machines had been forced to sell them during the lockdown as their regular source of income abated. SLPMS themselves didn’t have the capital to invest in the infrastructure needed to set up the unit.
Priya Babu, a Program Manager at Swasti and a well-respected writer from Tamil Nadu, initially approached a local women’s association and told them about SLPMS and their work. The association donated INR 40,000, which was used to purchase machines. Community members were willing to take this on, but there wasn’t any space to work in.
Priya Babu shared the communities on social media, and soon they found a room at a local playschool that they could rent at a minimal cost. Once again, through Priya Babu, SLPMS’s tailoring unit got its first client, who ordered 11,000 masks. The unit currently has 18 individuals working on the production, of which 13 work from their homes as they own sewing machines; they earn anywhere between Rs. 100 to Rs. 200 a day. Two types of masks are being made, i.e., an essential everyday mask and a herbal mask. On average, each individual can make 100 masks daily and earns Rs. 1 per essential mask and Rs. 5 per herbal mask. The unit will also be venturing into creating more products, such as cloth bags, pouches, women’s nightwear, etc., and receiving orders. Since its start in September 2020, the unit has produced 1.6 Lakh masks, with an income of INR 1.2 Lakhs and a profit of INR 90,000.
With CAC’s support, SPLMS was introduced to Godrej and Give India, assisting with providing grocery kits to the communities they work with. They were also connected to Selco Foundation, which provided them with solar panels to power the sewing machines at the tailoring unit, further reducing their operational costs. SLPMS hopes that they will provide more employment opportunities to these groups. Supporting the trans community members with alternative livelihoods has been critical to their well-being. Success in new ventures has given them the confidence and aspirations to scale and support more community members.