In central parts of southern India lives a group of women dedicated to empowering themselves and their community by creating eco-conscious jute products. This isn't however like any other group of women; each of them was born with a disadvantage. Yet despite their disabilities, they are now creating dozens of designs, mastering the art of turning the highly sustainable raw material - jute, into beautiful functional products. This is a story of the super-women that overcame their disabilities and are set out to empower their community.
It all started as a program supported by the well-known Integrated Development Trust and its Managing Trustee, Mrs Anne Ferrer, in 2001. Women with different disabilities from all parts of the region came together to form a handicraft group. Each one of them found tasks and activities they could master and enjoy. With their hands, they now create beautiful and functional jute interior products.
In 2020, in the midst of Covid-19, while the women were making millions of facemasks for their local community they were closed down due to legalities. The handicraft group was dissolved and the future of over 300 women was in jeopardy. The women had to decide what their future would look like. Some chose to go back to their villages as Covid-19 still made life hard, but 75 women stayed behind. With their new skills, personal growth and savings they had achieved, they decided to start a new handicraft entity fully managed and owned by themselves with equal shareholding. This handicraft group was started in July 2021.
Next to the handicraft production, the group now shares social activities, meals and physiotherapy. Most of the women live together at the facility and care for each other. Some work from their homes, but they all come together once a week for group discussions. Important issues in these discussions are their social status, personal challenges and traumas, next to the progression of their company they now proudly run themselves.
Women with disabilities have a history of discrimination often being placed in the lowest ranks of society. By coming together these women have gained the voice, independence, pride and power to speak up for their rights and those of other marginalised groups in the community. The women have the vision to expand their group and to empower both people with disabilities and other marginalised people in their community.
Durable | Natural dyes (see colour pallet) | Water tolerable | Appealing natural aesthetics |Made with highly eco-conscious jute fibre | Quality handwork with attention to detail
See more products (paper and fabric) below
Jute is a highly sustainable plant. Jute is often referred to as the “golden fibre”, it is the strongest of all natural fibres and is considered the fibre of the future. It is sourced from the wetlands at the rivers leading into the Bay of Bengal. Jute grows in traditional means without the use of pesticides as it is a resilient plant. It is also a tall plant that grows quickly providing large yields to the many smaller and independent farmers that get their livelihoods from the traditional harvesting of this versatile plant.
Jute can be harvested year after year as it actually enhances the fertility of the soil it grows on, and since it relies only on wetland water, it does not affect water resources. It actually helps control the river from over flooding the areas surrounding the river, mitigating potential natural disasters. Jute is also great for carbon dioxide fixation (capturing) and creates more oxygen than most trees.
Jute is retted using traditional means right where it is harvested, a natural process of preparing the jute fibres for further use. After the jute is processed it is coloured using natural dyes. These are derived from various rock minerals, spices, herbs, and plants. Mainly vegetable fibres from roots, bark, leaves, wood, seeds, flowers and fruits are used. The group has a unique knowledge of traditional dying that stems back to thousands of years ago.
After receiving the processed jute fibre from Bengal, the women naturally dye the jute using their unique knowledge of the natural dyes. The colouring process involves boiling the jute fibre in the dyes. After colouring the fibre they braid it into various sizes. The braided fibre is then used to create different high-quality household products with unique natural aesthetics.
The women specialise in making handmade jute products, but they've proudly mastered several skills and product categories, such as Paper Mache, book-making, jewellery, embroidery and tailoring. Paper products are made from recycled paper sourced from the waste of local offices; they recycle the paper by pulping it and using a sheeting machine to create the paper.
The handicraft group is a member of the World Fair Trade Organisation and promotes fair trade both in their own production and to their community as a whole.
Meet Tirupalamma In the beautiful hilly landscape of central southern India sits Tirupalamma in front of her little house. She is one of the homeworkers. She goes to the handicraft facility every week to collect the jute fibres and does the braiding in her little garden where she is close to her caring husband and two children. She can neither speak nor hear, but her strength and pride shine through her bright smile. Through sign language, she communicates well with her family and the handicraft group. She is happy to have visitors and she excitedly shows us her children, family and her little vegetable garden. Through the handicraft organization, she has saved money for her children's education and getting a loan to buy a bigger house that the little family hopes to shift to soon.
The highly eco-conscious jute fibre reduces soil erosion, stores carbon dioxide, does not strain water resources, and can replace large amounts of less sustainable materials such as cotton. The processing is done in a chemical-free and energy independent process making it one of the most sustainable fibres there is. As a product material, it's completely biodegradable, recyclable, and highly durable. These combine to result in durable products that will last for decades, reducing waste and keeping the carbon dioxide it stores in check.
Since the jute products are handmade using natural dyes, energy use and potentially harmful chemical use is set to nearly zero. The paper products are made using recycled paper, and research is going into how water can be saved in the papermaking process. This is something that the women plan to invest in when the finances allow.
UN Sustainable Development Goal
Through the use of jute and natural dyes in creating functional interior products we contribute to target 15.1 "ensure the conservation, restoration and sustainable use of terrestrial and inland freshwater ecosystems and their services, in particular forests, wetlands..."
Carbon dioxide storing(fixating): 2.2kg Co2e stored in 1kg of processed jute fibre*
Establishing their own handicraft group after the dissolution of their former organization proves the empowerment and self-confidence the group has already achieved. The new organization they recently formed will have the ability to keep providing work opportunities and growth to over 70 women with disabilities and many more marginalized people from their community. The daily physiotherapy and weekly group therapy sessions are an important part of women's health and well being.
The sourcing of these products supports both the empowerment of these inspiring women's livelihoods, their continued growth and their vision of empowering other marginalized groups in their community.
UN Sustainable Development Goal
By creating an inclusive handicraft group the production contributes to target 10.2 "empower and promote the social, economic and political inclusion of all, irrespective of age, sex, disability, race, ethnicity, origin, religion or economic or other status."
By providing fair trade work opportunities to women with disabilities and other marginalized people, the production continues to target 8.5 "achieve full and productive employment and decent work for all women and men, including for young people and persons with disabilities, and equal pay for work of equal value"
Livelihoods impacted: 75+ women with disabilities
Comments by Fredrik, CEO of Source For Future
This is a unique and incredible story of hardship, collectiveness and empowerment that is difficult to give justice to through writing.
Visiting the women in 2021, as the first outsiders after the pandemic hit and they had to start their own organization, left a lifelong impression on me. Something which is difficult to explain in the text is these women's strength, pride, and power. They have changed their future from being destined to be at bottom of the social structure to becoming strong independent voices with a vision to use their empowerment to empower other marginalized groups. That is immensely impressive.
*Jute Co2 fixation: 5641kg Co2 fixated per hectare of processed jute fibre. 1 hectare of jute fibre yields 2500 kg jute fibre. (Estimation: 5641/2500= 2.2kg Co2 fixated per kg jute fibre). Source: http://www.sac.org.bd/archives/journals/sja_v_7_i_2_2009.pdf#page=54
Paper and fabric products