Building Bridges for Poor Widows in the Punjab
By Tricia Brick
Building Bridges India represents a bridge from the past to the future, from a patriarchal society to an egalitarian one in which women have role options, rights, and responsibilities; a passage from despair to hope
For more than thirty years, communities in the Indian state of Punjab have been stricken by an epidemic barely reported in the mainstream media: the suicides of small-scale farmers. These tragedies are precipitated by a cumulation of factors, including successive seasons of bad weather, the soaring costs of seeds and fertilizer, a falling water table, and usurious rates imposed by moneylenders, that have made it impossible for many to support their families on their ancestral lands. Seeing no way out, thousands have taken their own lives. Their deaths are tragedy enough. But for the widows and children they leave behind, life becomes a desperate struggle simply to survive.
Untrained, often illiterate and malnourished, burdened with their husbands’ debts yet lacking the skills needed to earn an income, the women left behind—some older, some quite young—are responsible for housing and feeding themselves, their children, and sometimes elderly relatives as well.
Buddhist Global Relief partner Building Bridges India (BBI) works to support and empower these widows. BGR has partnered with BBI on two projects, an organic farming training program and a handicraft and garment production initiative.
The organic farming project provided training in organic kitchen gardening for 300 impoverished widows. At workshops held on land adjoining gurdwaras (Sikh temples) in Makod Saab, Balran, Hamirgarh, Chotian, and Khokhar, two professors from Punjab Agricultural University trained the women in nutrition, natural farming techniques, irrigation, environmentally sound pest control and fertilization, and other subjects. The project also provided workshops on reproductive health for 100 women.
The handicraft and garment production project provided basic sewing and embroidery training to 100 women in Lehel Kalan, Balran, Chotian, Hamirgarh, and Mandvi. Additionally, a successful New Delhi fashion designer and entrepreneur, Shalini Saluja, led four garment-design workshops focusing on integrating the traditional hand embroidery phulkari with contemporary fashion and home-décor design to create marketable artisanal handicrafts. Two entrepreneurship workshops helped women develop knowledge and skills in such areas as market demand and pricing, publicity, product design, maintaining quality standards, and basic accounting.
Following the training, the women’s average income grew from 4,000 rupees a month to 7,000, a 75 percent increase. Fifteen workshop participants joined BBI’s team to train other women in their home villages in the skills they learned through the project.
“I come from a very poor family and did not have any means of earning an income until I joined the center,” said Jasveer Kaur, who participated in trainings at the Balran Vocational Training Centre. “I learned to use the sewing machine to make clothes and to do phulkari embroidery with different color combinations.” She now earns enough to pay the school fees of her two younger siblings and contribute to household expenses.
Neetu Sharma joined the Hameergarh training center to learn how to sew. At the center, she became interested in organic farming and participated in home gardening workshops. “I’ve been able to grow vegetables to feed my family and to sell them for an income,” she said. “Although our family is poor, our living conditions have improved since we became involved with these projects.”
A young woman named Kiranpal participated in both the tailoring and embroidery training program and the health education workshops at the Balran center. “With this training, I can now stitch clothes for my family and myself, and I’ve been able to earn an income by selling my clothes on the market,” she said. “I am thankful to Dr. Sunita and other experts for helping me understand my health and how it’s related to social issues. I hope they will continue to visit and provide support to young women like me.”
This article is based on the final project report from Building Bridges India to Buddhist Global Relief for the period October 2017 to September 2018.
Tricia Brick is a writer and editor in the New York metropolitan area and a board member of Buddhist Global Relief.