When nimble fingers pack a punch: female textile and garment sector workers in India show how life skills training acts as an effective tool for women empowerment.
The textile and garment industry has been significant to India, contributing 14 percent to industrial production, four percent to India’s GDP and constituting 13 percent of the country’s export earnings.
According to an article published in Marie Claire, there are over 6,500 textile factories currently operating in India, generating employment opportunities for millions of people from lower socio-economic backgrounds. In India, female labour force participation in garment factories is also on the rise, with new entrants tending to be disproportionately female. As of 2013, eight million people in India, were employed in the garment industry of which 60 percent were women.
The sound of the blaring sewing machines coordinates with the routine gestures of “cut, sew, stitch..” Eyes stare down at bright fabric as dull manoeuvring of nimble fingers skillfully work them into pleated, shapely garments.
Various interviews in the garment factories reveal that a large proportion of the women working at the tables, are subjects of distress migration, seeking better opportunities within the formal garment supply chain work. Many others face unfortunate and difficult conditions within their own homes. As a result, work becomes synonymous with ‘earning a living wage’ and the idea of career progression seems bleak with a predominance of males in supervisory roles.
There is a loss of purposefulness among women in regard to their identity as individuals at work, in the home and as empowered citizens in society. Inspiring a sense of an empowered ‘self’ among the female workers requires consistent intervention. Can life skills training act as a crucial tool for effective engagement to achieve the task?
Recounting the tale of her mother’s passing, Kamla, an operator working in a garment factory in Punjab, shares how she went on to mechanically continue her work, and would barely speak to anyone else on her shop-floor. Various other interviews include comments such as “I am only here to work,” “I do not need to make friends.”
Heena*, joined the pool of semi-skilled workers in a pen manufacturing factory in Gujarat, when she was left in dire financial straits after her husband passed away. Immersing herself in work, she would not speak much with her colleagues. Heena sombrely shares: “There have been days when I have felt helpless and cried. I was scared for my children's future and mine. I used to wonder how I would manage.”
Owing to the patriarchal setup within their homes, the women find themselves struggling to exhibit confidence that can only come from exercising autonomous decision making.
Many of the women working in the garment factories seem to have very little knowledge when it comes to managing their finances. *Kanta, one of the female workers at a Bengaluru factory and *Bharti, from a Tirupur garment unit, would usually give their earnings to the male heads of the family.
Kanta held the belief that her husband would be able to manage the finances better and Bharati, in an obligatory gesture, would part with her monthly earning handing them over to her brother, who offered her a home when she separated from her husband.
As women come to perceive that they do not hold the bargaining power to negotiate for better positions within their homes, the endeavour to seek supervisory roles and accept senior roles of responsibility within the factory, also seems futile. Unable to deal with the responsibility of managing workers in an entire production line, Shama*, one of the senior workers at a garment factory in Bengaluru, who was promoted as a supervisor, ceded the title and returned to her previous post as a trainer.
Building blocks - Towards an enriched life
Life skills programmes are tailored to build skills that will empower women to take independent decisions and take control of the course of their life by nurturing of skills such as self- awareness, interpersonal communication, assertiveness, negotiation skills, decision making skills, balancing work and life, financial management, and leadership skills.
Several organisations, foundations, and brands have initiated programmes that strengthen and build life skills among women working in garment factories.
Swasti, a Health Resource Centre based in Bengaluru has also championed some of these programmes in collaboration with global brands, foundations and corporate entities.
As part of its various initiatives across India, experts from the organisation work with large groups of women in factories to strengthen their life skills. The underlying objective of these training programmes is to elevate self-esteem required to navigate their roles as caregivers in the family, and productive workers in the factory.
Through the course of these life skills training programmes, an evident change of perspective could be seen. The women were found to be more confident about taking independent decisions as they had gained rich information and skills during the sessions.
The Labor Lab of Tufts University, Massachusetts, conducted a study in India to understand the short-term and long-term impact of life skills training among the female garment workers.
According to findings from the study, training impacts understanding of how to receive a promotion in the short and long-term in this model and is the key to many aspects of a better work environment.
Training in the long-term also impacts whether a woman helps decide how the family income is spent. The Labor Lab found that after attending life skills training, the participants were more likely to speak to their family about sharing tasks to reduce stress and to have their suggestions put in place by supervisors and managers at their workplace.
Kanta, having received knowledge on financial planning and budgeting, shared the same information with her husband and has since been managing her own finances. She expressed, “I manage my own money now. I have been able to save money every month and admit my son to a good private school”
As the loss of control over her own earning consequently brought down her work efficiency, Bharti began slacking at her work desk as well. However, through the course of these trainings, she was able to gather the courage to manage an independent accommodation where she moved out with her children and mother. She understood that to gain control of her finances and raise her children in the way she wanted, she would have to move out of her brother’s home. As she began to see the benefits of putting in hard work at the factory, she has eventually been able to secure a promotion.
Shama, after attending a session on self-motivation, reflected on the lost opportunity for growth by ceding her promotion. After the project, Shama gleefully expresses, “I have accepted my promotion as a supervisor now and I am happy and confident about managing the same.”
Heena was also able to gain back her confidence, through the course of life skills training, and she has been able to open up to her colleagues at work and has taken up charge of the Water, Sanitation & Hygiene Committee in the factory.
In a broader sense, empowerment must also encompass and celebrate the idea of active agency and mobilisation among women to negotiate within rigidly gendered structures.
Many women across the factories insist that as they gained confidence in their ability to communicate effectively, they have been able to partake in community level negotiation and participate in forming self-help groups and disseminating knowledge among the women of the group.
Maria expresses, “I was lazy and had very little motivation in life. The training helped me to set goals for myself and dream a little bigger.”
With an enhanced sense of self, women also reported finding solidarity among fellow co-workers and derive joy from mingling with and opening up to each other. Many others learnt how to deal with difficult and stressful situations and ease pent up frustration by communicating their worries and seeking out favourable solutions.
Kamla began seeking comfort in communicating with her fellow line workers and insisted, “I was depressed after my mother passed away, but through the life skills training I learnt that death is inevitable and life goes on. I now dream of a better future for myself and my family.”
Damini, who works as a trimmer in a garment factory in Karur, Tamil Nadu shared: “What happened in my life is nothing short of a miracle. My husband who has never worked all his life, found a job and now goes regularly to work. I gained the confidence to speak to him and convince him to work. Now peace prevails at home and my family’s finances are improving.”
In the hope filled words of Sumitra, (a differently-abled machine operator from a factory in Tuticorin, Tamil Nadu, and a member of a local self-help group), “A woman’s life is not defined by just marriage and motherhood. There is so much more that women can achieve. I want to be able to achieve a lot in life, just like others, and be an example to all.”
The sense of empowerment can bring about ripples of change. When women begin to realise their potential of taking control of their lives, the will to alter environments and make them more permissive, gathers steam.
The views expressed by the author are his own and do not necessarily reflect that of YourStory.