A woman is the full circle. Within her is the power to create, nurture and transform.” – Diane Mariechild
Chhaya Sonavane is a woman who packs a punch. Speaking to me from Ahmedabad she says,
“I can teach a girl or a woman to earn a minimum of 500 rupees a day so she can stand on her own feet and not have to depend on anyone.”
This was the highlight of my conversation with Chhaya, who has not let the lack of higher education come in the way of her desire to empower herself and others. From a homemaker who took to entrepreneurship by teching sewing to young women, and provide for her children what she herself never got – an English medium schooling and an expensive engineering college education. Today, her two sons are software engineers working with IT companies.
“Coming from the abject poverty that I had seen, I did not want my children to have the same life. That was my primary driver. Today, I am proud to see my sons do so well. My sons are earning well and we do not have to worry about finances but even today when I look back upon those days when life was tough, I feel my eyes brimming,” says Chhaya.
A simple childhood
She grew up on the margins of poverty in a small village of Dharangaon located near Jalgaoun district in Maharashtra. Growing up with seven siblings with her father as the sole breadwinner of the family, Chhaya’s childhood was not about dolls and toys. The basic comforts which most of us take for granted were a dream. Given the limited resources the family had at its disposal, she did manage to study till class 10. Higher education was a far away dream.
She married a textile mill worker in Gujarat. She then moved to Ahmedabad with her husband. Since it was the 80’s, her husband’s job was a prestigious one. But gradually the mills shut down and Chhaya’s husband found himself unemployed. Hunger is a great driver, and it drove him to look for an alternate avenue of employement and he took to driving auto rickshaws.
Towards financial independence
Though Chhaya had been a silent spectator to her husbands changing financial status, she had not been immune to it. It had deeply impacted her and urged her to do something of her own to support her family. She decided to take up sewing classes and then teach others to help her family tide through the financial crunch. The decision was not an easy one as Chhaya had to contend with her orthodox in-laws who were averse to the idea. It was with her husband’s support that she managed to turn the tide in her favour.
With her mother-in-law’s words ringing in her ears, “What will she do,” Chhaya was driven to show them all that she could achieve.
It took her three months to become adept with stitching women garments. Soon she started accepting orders at home. And by word of mouth she managed to create a great network of clientele for herself and soon more orders started pouring in.
Driven by the confidence this new-found financial status brought, Chhaya decided to scale her business and started sewing classes for girls and women from poor families so that they could learn sewing and support their families and also gain economic independence. Soon Chhaya’s venture, ‘Dev Shree’, started gaining traction as more and more women started enrolling for her classes.
While she trained women to be financially independent, she also had her second child. She ensured that both her sons received an English medium education, something that she had not been able to receive in her childhood. Given that the family was still not well off, it was a bold decision by Chhaya, but she stuck to her guns.
Ask Chhaya who inspired her and pat comes the reply, “My mother has been a great source of inspiration for me. Although she had a big family to take care of, she always managed to keep everyone happy with the limited resources available.”
Being the change
It has been almost 25 years since she started and to this day, says Chhaya, “there hasn’t been a single month when I did not have students in my class.”
She claims she has educated more than 3,000 women who have come from poor families. These women are currently running their own stitching business and supporting their families. It is something that gives her great joy and makes her feel proud.
“In fact, many women I taught now send their daughters to me to learn sewing,” she says with a smile.
Mahatama Gandhi said, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” Chhaya has done just that. Her son, Jay, shares a very interesting anecdote he remembers from his childhood about his mother. A father desirous of enrolling his daughter who was handicapped due to polio, approached Chhaya. Most others teachers or trainers had refused to take her in on the pretext of her legs having limited strength and sensitivity, making teaching sewing a difficult task.
Chhaya decied to change things, she not only enrolled the girl but also arranged for a special automatic sewing machine and started her classes. At the end of four months, the girl had learnt how to sew and could make a living for herself by sewing.
Women empowerment is close to Chhaya’s heart, and she says, her motto is, “to train more and more girls who can become like me, earn their own living, support themselves and even their families especially mothers who want the best for their children.”
The big hall space she created at her home to teach students is teeming with activity. Now a grandmother, she is happy to have proven to her mother-in-law wrong and show the world that when you have the drive nothing is impossible.
As I close the conversation with Chhaya, I have Ayn Rand’s saying ringing in my ears, “The question isn’t who’s going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me.” Chhaya is a case in point.