Creating designs that are global but at the same time embrace our roots is our way of interpreting contemporary Indian fashion. This is an ongoing endeavour for my team at the House of Anita Dongre—be it an intricately hand-embroidered bridal lehnga or a traditional hand-block printed dress. Reimagining the craft by synergizing modern designs with ancient handcrafts is, I believe, our contribution to an enhanced awareness about our craft history and the need for promoting sustainable, ethical fashion.

Today, more people are aware of the crafts, artisans, and the imperative to revive, sustain and nurture them. As the demand for sustainable, contemporary Indian fashion increases, we must ensure both the authenticity of crafts and the empowerment of rural artisans.

When you empower women, you empower a family and build a stronger community, and this will lead to a more progressive, inclusive nation. In addition to becoming economically independent, they win the respect of family members, communities, and are part of key decision-making processes. In my experience, I have found rural communities to be immensely talented; they just need the opportunity and exposure to harness their potential. India has a long and unique history of craftsmanship, with several indigenous crafts and practices passed down generations of artisan communities. I feel privileged to rediscover and revive these beautiful heritage crafts through my designs and work.

It has always been my dream to create beautiful clothes—and a beautiful tomorrow for our people, planet and crafts. The journey with Grassroot began after we were introduced to the rural women associated with SEWA (Self Employed Women’s Association). It was important for me to help find a way to give these strong, talented women a way to economic empowerment in their villages, without their having to migrate to cities. Our long-term vision is to provide regular work to artisans and bring back respect and dignity to these master craftspeople.

One of the barriers to Indian women realizing their potential is lack of access to affordable, quality adult education and professional skill training. This would be a five-step simple process: i) enable her to think she can earn, ii) equip her with relevant professional skills through structured theory and practical (on-the-job training) modules, iii) provide the much needed forward linkages post-training for her to earn decent livelihoods through employment/self-employment, iv) handhold her to deliver value-added products/services while she balances her family responsibilities, and v) communicate her achievements to her peers, family and community to motivate her to achieve the next level and inspire other women.

A number of issues, however, continue to hinder the development of rural women. Be it sociocultural barriers, lack of education or limited access to training programmes and resources—they aren’t able to completely unshackle themselves from the dogmas and social hierarchical boundaries. Gender biases in a patriarchal society add to their challenges. I sincerely feel that women’s empowerment stems from economic empowerment. Educating women and providing them with skilled training is of utmost importance.

For instance, we adopted the village of Charoti in Maharahstra to train tribal women in garment-making, and, encouraged by the success of this initiative, we took another step in that direction with Jawahar, in the same district—Palghar. At present, 100-plus tribal women have been trained in garment-making at two tailoring units and are now earning a decent and regular monthly income. Very soon, we will be starting our third unit in Dhanevari village in Dahanu taluka.

We have partnered with government agencies, other companies, NGOs and village panchayats to provide steady employment opportunities to skilled rural artisans and train unemployed and unskilled women in villages like Charoti and Jawahar. Our industry associations can also play an important role by channelizing the corporate social responsibility (CSR) funds of companies in the apparel sector and providing business opportunities to the trained women.

The Anita Dongre Foundation’s vision is to scale up its women empowerment initiative to other locations/states as well as enable structured capacity building and leadership development of the women at these tailoring units so they can be independently, professionally managed and self-sustained in the medium to long term. With limited resources at our disposal, the idea is to partner with credible non-profits, collaborating with government, leveraging CSR resources from companies and promoting active community stakeholder participation through the life cycle of our interventions.

Anita Dongre is a Mumbai-based fashion designer. Apart from her eponymous luxury brand, the House of Anita Dongre comprises a portfolio of brands like AND, Global Desi, Grassroot and Pinkcity.

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