Aashiyana means “refuge,” and it may refer to the secure end of a rocky road because this group has had to overcome numerous obstacles. In 1992, they began as a project of an NGO called Children of the World, Bombay. CWB helped the women pay for their children’s school fees, books, and uniforms. They also trained the women in sewing and embroidery and arranged for them to fulfill orders such as stitching school uniforms. CWB also sometimes brought them MarketPlace products to sew. In 1995, when CWB moved across the bay to Nerul, they encouraged the group to become independent. The women formed a group they called Ekta Mahila Mandal which consisted of 10 sewing artisans and 10 embroidery artisans. This group, however, broke up when a number of the women married and left.
In 1997, some of the remaining women came together to found Aashiyana Mahila Mandal. They invested money to rent a workspace at Tulsiwada in far southern Mumbai and also hired a supervisor. The organization ran into problems, however, and they lost money – and their workspace. Once again, the group was reborn when some of the women pawned their jewelry to raise more funds. Since they no longer had a group space, the women worked from home for many years.
Nowadays they rent a small workshop and are well established. Current membership consists of 5 sewing artisans, 4 embroidery artisans, and one supervisor. But they are planning to add to their numbers. Their first assignments for MarketPlace were some of the simpler garments. Now they are able to handle more complicated pieces and they are constantly asking for additional training to add to their expertise.
When they first started working with MarketPlace-SHARE, the artisans were quite inexperienced and reticent. They were afraid to speak and many had never traveled on a bus or train. Often they got lost taking the train to the MarketPlace office in Santa Cruz in north-central Mumbai. But they were determined and ambitious and they learned to negotiate Mumbai’s public transport. In fact, unlike some groups, they rarely use a cab to transport goods but manage to move it by train – more difficult but also more economical. MarketPlace staff members know they can count on Aashiyana to deliver products on time; last season they had the best record of all the groups.
It is important to these artisans that they make the decisions concerning what to do with the money they earn. In many cases, they invest in their children’s education. Most of the women are uneducated and they are resolved to see that their children are not deprived of this opportunity. Hasaina, the supervisor’s son, did so well in his exams that he is eligible for 2 entrance exams, one for medicine and the other for engineering. In another case, a woman saved up to be able to take the trip of a lifetime, a pilgrimage to Mecca. Another artisan used her savings plus a small inheritance to buy an apartment in her own name.
Aashiyana is located in a neighborhood which is predominantly Muslim. There have been conflicts in the area between communities. But Aashiyana once again lives up to its name, Refuge, a place where people rise above intolerance and respect differences. The cooperative has both Hindu and Muslim members who have learned to work as a team and support one another. This little – but growing – group has proven over and over that working for a common goal can make all the difference.