Reading Time: 4 minutesAn Australian social enterprise is empowering rural Indian women one string at a time
Although born and raised in Australia, 31-year-old Neha Maheshwaran has always felt a strong connection to India.
From an early age she was drawn to the idea of working in the developmental sector, but it wasn’t until she experienced their work firsthand during her stint as a volunteer in India, that she realised what a difference NGOs make in the lives of vulnerable people that struggle to lift themselves out of poverty.
It was a culmination of these experiences that inspired Neha to start her own social enterprise and a not-for-profit organisation in Australia, HeartStrings
An accessories brand which makes and sells handmade necklaces designed and produced by vulnerable women in rural India, HeartStrings provides these women with employment opportunities and a means to sustain their families.
The idea to start her own social enterprise first came about when Neha was volunteering in India as a student.
“I volunteered for a few different organisations, but I spent most of my time at the Chinmaya Organisation for Rural Development (CORD) in Sidhbari, Himachal Pradesh,” Neha says.
“The NGOs worked with vulnerable women and provided practical training to them so that they were able to produce a variety of handmade products to support their families.”
“These products were often sold at a shop front near the NGOs, but because the shops were in rural areas there were limited sales as not many people visited the area. The prices were also set for the local market, so the money that the women were earning from the sales was marginal,” Neha told Indian Link.
Neha saw great passion and potential in the women she met and wanted to support them to earn a better livelihood.
That’s when she decided to sell the handmade products in the Australian market and provide an income stream to the women directly.
Neha (centre) and friends
“With the growth and popularity of online shopping in Australia, I saw an opportunity to help empower women to improve their livelihoods and to support development projects that were driving social change in rural communities by selling their handmade products in Australia,” Neha says.
As her family hails from Gujarat, Neha decided to set up HeartStrings in September 2014 in Surat, Gujarat.
She collaborated with an NGO called Lok Vikas Sanstha which provides vocational training and health programs to women who are at risk of abuse and exploitation.
“The women who make our necklaces have been involved in the programs run by Lok Vikas Sanstha,” Neha explains.
“They have suffered significant hardship throughout their lives, often being victims of domestic abuse and exploitation. Although trained in sewing and stitching, there are very few opportunities for them to earn a fair wage in their local communities.”
HeartStrings seeks to address the difficulties faced by providing these women with exposure to the Australian market.
Neha has also appointed a local coordinator, Uma Arora, who helps manage the production process in Surat and train the women in making these necklaces.
Neha and Uma
“After a joint phase of research and development, Uma Aunty trained the women in making our first product line – our sari beaded necklaces. We provide all the raw materials to the women, and Uma Aunty meets regularly with them to check on their progress,” Neha says.
“The women work from their homes so that they are able to attend to their children or other family members, as the need may be.”
Uma training women
Neha is focussed on selling as many beautiful handmade necklaces as possible, so that she can provide more consistent work to the women involved in the venture, and also to reach more women who are seeking employment.
One of the women who participates in the venture, Rani Pathak, 25, is using the money that she earns through HeartStrings to buy food and pay school fees for her two daughters, Riti, 8, and 6-year-old Ripu. Currently her household is being run off her income alone.
“If I was not working for HeartStrings I would have to take money from someone and pay high interest,” Rani says.
“Now I do not have debts. I am proud and happy that I can earn for my family. My daughters are able to study and my younger daughter wants to be a doctor!”
Rani and Ripu
Talking about her future plans, Neha says, “We are currently working on a new product range, and I hope to launch this in the coming months.
We are also looking at what development projects we can support through our partner NGO, and initially these will be focused on ensuring that the women, their families and their communities have access to basic necessities such as clean drinking water, food and personal hygiene products.”
It is still very early days for HeartStrings as it the venture went live online only a few months ago, though the response has been very positive.
When starting any new scheme there is always a fear that things might not work out the way you hope. Neha firmly believes in Mahatma Gandhi’s famous saying, “You may never know what results come of your action, but if you do nothing there will be no result.”
“While my hopes and aspirations for HeartStrings are certainly high – everyone should dream big! – at the end of the day if we have a meaningful positive impact on the lives of five, ten or 50 women, then HeartStrings would have achieved what it initially set out to do – to support a social change.”
To learn more about HeartStrings, visit their Facebook page HERE or website: www.handmadeheartstrings.com