This is the office of “Saheli”, a trust started few months ago by Shruti Kaushik in a small village on Shimla Bypass Road. At an age when youngsters rush to join corporates, party in clubs and enjoy drives, Shruti works 14 hours a day, earning her own livelihood through tuitions and runs Saheli, which works to prevent domestic violence & to empower rural women by teaching them handicraft to enable them to earn money.
The Saheli Self Help Group, with Shruti Kaushik sitting on extreme left
“In my final year of graduation, I realized that the aim of my life was not to make money but to make women, especially weaker women, happy” says Shruti. “Women are oppressed in our society; while India may have won it’s freedom in 1947, women in India are still far from free” she says with a rue.
Saheli was born out of this desire to help women. “In just two months of its existence God has given Saheli strength to help six women who were being subject to untold domestic violence” informs Shruti. Recounting horror stories of domestic violence, Shruti mentions a particular case in which the inlaws killed a boy mercilessly, when his separated mother applied in court for the child’s custody. The inlaws apparently made the woman hear her child’s screams on mobile as they beat him to death. In another case, a husband used to drag his wife by her hair on village streets and beat her black and blue in full public view whenever he felt that her housekeeping was not upto the mark. “Domestic violence is the bane of Indian society and is present in families, cutting across socio-economic strata. No income group is free from it, and in most cases the wife bears it silently for lack of self-confidence, absence of support structure and the sheer dread of being physically beaten” she informs. According to her the police run women’s helpline only looks after cyber cases and harassment on mobile, but to seek help on being beaten up or molested, the woman has to walk physically to a thana to register complaint, which is literally impossible in a majority of cases, hence the need of a helpline which can actually respond to a woman’s call for help.
“A big factor in women bearing injustice silently is the lack of financial independence” she explains, “which was the reason why we started a women’s Self Help Group two months ago. Most women, especially village women, have never earned in their lives and therefore lack self-confidence. We had to teach these women, most of whom never attended school, how to draw and paint and make envelopes and after the initial period, they now make exquisite envelopes. The smile on their faces, when they got their first earnings, is something which I can never forget” she says. Besides envelopes, Saheli SHG now makes quilling & crotia products.
“Day for me begins at 5 am and ends at 11.00pm, with frequently no lunch break at all” she says with a smile. When asked how her family reacted to her decision of not perusing engineering after graduation she says that after the initial reluctance and even anger, they have now realized that her happiness lies in serving people. “My mother, Mrs Manju Kaushik and Pulkit, my elder brother, have really gone out of their way to encourage me now. Without their support, Saheli would not have achieved what all it could in such a short time” she says.
Admitting that starting a new venture from scratch is tough especially when there is absolutely no capital money to rely on, Shruti believes that no obstacle is big enough to be un-surmountable. “Marketing is a big problem for us, as we still don’t have enough money to employ salespersons. Some of our women go to specific events and put up stalls so we concentrate mainly on direct marketing. It is very difficult to convince shopkeepers to keep our products, inspite of the quality being extremely good and prices comparatively low” she reveals. Even as she admits that funds are limiting the growth of the Self Help Group, Shruti is confident the group’s potential “A few people have come forwards to help us, even giving us raw material on credit. In particular I would like to thank Mr Rajeev Oberoi, who gave us the first few paper sheets on credit, which set us rolling. Mrs Suman Tiwari & Mrs Laksha Mehta have been extremely supportive of us and have helped in marketing, but we do still have a long way to go” she says. Included in her future plans is expanding the range of Saheli products to include earrings & necklaces, making a branch of Saheli SHG in another village, starting a 24 hours women’s helpline and a mobile Saheli Shop.
“We all wish India was a better place but this feeling in most of us remains in our minds or on Facebook. We blame society, family and practicality, for our running after money and power the moment we graduate, hoping that someone else will do the job of making India a better place. I did not wait for others but chose my own path and destiny. Where this path takes me, God only knows, but I know, that I am doing what I believe in. Women in India cannot continue to suffer” she concludes, with a smile on her face and confidence in her eyes.
As I drove back after the interview, the smiling optimistic faces of the women working in Saheli’s office lingered in my mind. As luck would have it, I got stuck in a traffic jam due to DAV students dancing on streets while campaigning and shirtless students standing on seats of motorcycles; the contrast couldn’t have been starker.
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