Victims Of Abuse, These Women In Bodh Gaya Now Earn By Turning Temple Flower Waste Into Dyes

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Women like Malati or Kanchan from interior villages of Bihar rarely make headlines, yet their everyday life is a saga of endless struggles worthy of stirring novels. Born and bred in poverty, they fail to acquire even the basic education and are married off early. For most of them, their plight knows no bounds at the in-laws’ home where abuse, violence and neglect welcome them, hoarding the proud banner of patriarchy.

Malati, who hails from Gaya, was pushed to the edge by an alcoholic and abusive husband. She decided to take a bold step. She joined a team of thirty other women like her, who were trained and employed by ‘Matr’ (मातृ ) in The Happy Hands Project – an organic fashion venture which turns temple flower waste from Bodh Gaya into colourful dyes for Khadi clothes.

The Happy Hands Project
Women at work

The first few days were hard for Malati. Her mother-in-law was severely apprehensive; her husband used to snatch away her phone and force her to stay home. Her character was questioned. But, things changed once she started earning. The little financial independence she secured for herself earned her respect at home. The violence stopped, so did the mental abuse she tolerated days after days.

Speaking to Efforts For Good, fashion designer Praveen Chauhan, co-founder of ‘The Happy Hands Project’, also shares the story of another woman, Kanchan. “She was abandoned by her husband at a very young age. She was helpless, living as a ‘liability’ in her father’s place. But, when she became a part of this project, Kanchan was determined not to depend on her father anymore. A few days back when I called her, I could sense the rejoice in the voice of her family member who answered the phone,” shares Praveen.

The Happy Hands Project
Hues of happiness

More than a simple job

For the marginalised women in Gaya, The Happy Hands Project is more than a mere job. It is their magical key for stepping out of their dingy four walls, damp with their untold stories and tears. The project was started in September 2018 and has engaged around thirty women from the adjacent villages so far. Praveen informs, “We have plans to recruit up to 250 women by the end of February 2019.”

The Happy Hands Project
The final dye

Praveen collaborated with designer Kathy Williams from Australia, an expert in natural dyes, for The Happy Hands Project. “We met at the Lakme Fashion Week and our aligned interests soon led to this project,” he shares. Praveen’s brand ‘Matr’ and Kathy’s brand ‘Because Of Nature’ joined hands with Bodhgaya Temple Trust for this project. “We received immense help from DM Abhishek Kumar Singh,” he mentions.

The Happy Hands Project
Founders Kathy and Praveen

About The Happy Hands Project

So what exactly is The Happy Hands Project? Handmade natural dyes are prepared from heaps of flower waste at the Bodh Gaya shrine by the local women. True to its name, the product is indeed curated in the tireless hands of women, whose lives have seen a ‘happy’ turnaround at the workshop.

The Happy Hands Project
Team ‘The Happy Hands Project’

“Mostly we find women in rural India opting for work in stitching and handicrafts. Gaya was no exception. However, our project opened up an entirely new professional dimension for them,” Praveen asserts. The working women are trained with precision before they dip their hands into the monumental heaps of marigold.

The Happy Hands Project
Festive flower decor at the Mahabodhi temple

Every day, especially during the festive months like now, the Mahabodhi temple records a footfall of thousands, from all around the world. Flowers are an integral part of offering prayers, and as a result, around 200 to 400 kgs of flower waste are generated daily.

The Happy Hands Project
Kathy (centre) training the women

After segregation, drying and processing, the flowers are ground into fine powder, from which the dyes are born. These then find their way to colour Khadi fabrics in earthy hues.

Who is Praveen Chauhan

Fashion designer Praveen Chauhan is not a new name in the domain of sustainable fashion. Nearly a decade ago, he decided to opt out of the glam and glitz of the fashion industry and find his inspiration among the forgotten textiles of India.

While the trend of eco-friendly clothing is catching up worldwide, Praveen believes the whole concept has its roots in India itself. “Yet we are drifting away from it, towards synthetic products,” he laments.

The Happy Hands Project
The women dyeing the clothes

The conscious designer and social entrepreneur has worked at the grassroots level, identifying traditional Indian fashion surviving dimly in scattered interior regions. His designs have found much acclaim at international fashion weeks and are representing ancient India in a new light to the world. Praveen latest venture is ‘Matr’ – a sustainable fashion brand to revive Khadi in Bihar, his birthplace.

The Happy Hands Project
A Khadi scarf after dying

“The artisans deserve all the credits”

The efforts of The Happy Hands Project have been recognised by the state government as well as national and international media. But for Praveen and Kathy, all that matters is saving the planet and the helpless lives on it. “I don’t want to take any credit for this project. To be honest, without our artisans we are nothing. They deserve all the credits,” shares Praveen. “Changing the lives of these women is the best award we could ever ask for,” he beams.


Also Read: When Drought Hit Their Husbands’ Jobs, These Feisty Village Housewives Stepped Up To Run Their Families

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MyStory: “Two Months After I Joined IIT For My PhD I Was Diagnosed With TB”

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A person suffering from Tuberculosis (TB) not only battles the ‘Mycobacterium tuberculosis’ bacteria inside his lungs but also from the stigma attached to the disease. It weakens the patients in many different ways in their fight against the dreaded disease.  

My fight with TB was also filled with stigma. I joined IIT Kharagpur for my PhD in January 2015. Two months later, in March 2015, I was diagnosed with TB. I had to take sick leave from March 2015 that eventually lasted till June 2016. Initially, I did not respond well to medication. Further tests revealed that I had multidrug-resistant TB (MDR TB). This meant that the type of TB I had was resistant to two or more of the antitubercular medication I was taking.

About a year after the intensive phase of my treatment, I felt better and applied for readmission to IIT in July 2016. A prerequisite for rejoining was that my faculty members had to verify my application. With the formalities completed, I resumed my education, but I felt that something was amiss. 

My guide indicated that he did not want his work to suffer on account of my illness. I also heard from a senior colleague that my guide had said that I would spread the disease like an ‘infested animal’. I was disheartened at being subjected to this indignity by my supposed mentor.

However, my primary concern was defeating TB, so I didn’t dwell on it. Today, as I reflect on it, I realise the reasons behind the stigma were ignorance as well as fear.

Even among the educated, there are misconceptions about TB. People think all forms of TB are contagious. Others believe the patient is infectious for the entire length of the treatment. Some even believe that TB spreads through touch. This breeds the fear of contracting the illness.

As we know, people stigmatise and discriminate when they fear. I felt the impact of the stigma on two levels – in my professional life and my personal life.

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Professionally, the reluctance of my supervisor to mentor me and his discouragement affected me. I could not decide whether I should wait for the IIT authorities to tell me to leave or drop out. That decision was made for me by luck when I found out that my CSIR grant application was never processed. 

This meant that I would have to pay for my education. Given the expenditure on my treatment, this was unaffordable for me. This was the final nail in the coffin. I was forced to drop out and could not go back to completing my PhD.

What I faced was not technically illegal. I was discouraged from doing my PhD, but it was still a form of stigma. The external stigma I faced led to depression and isolation. 

Eventually, I realised I had to fight. The treatment for TB is difficult, requiring strict compliance and the management of side effects, and these demands resolve. I began motivating myself. I began following a proper diet and completing my treatment to ensure I could recover. I also turned to books as they transported me to other worlds and helped with my isolation. I also focused on reviving my old relationships.

Gradually, things improved. I could not proceed on my desired career path, but I am an educator now. I constantly realise that I have a role to play in shaping young minds. 

Workplace stigma has tangible consequences. It affects an individual’s career, financial opportunities and their right to work with dignity. So what can we do to address this stigma? 

First, we need to sensitise people by educating them about TB, and the impact stigma has on patients.

Another measure is group counselling involving the patient, the employer and the immediate supervisor. Informal versions of these sessions happen in the workplace in the context of illnesses like cancer. Why should it be any different for TB? 

The goal of this session would be to ensure that the patient is in a supportive environment. 

Finally, at a systemic level, there needs to be a workplace policy on stigma mitigation and a mechanism where the patients can anonymously register their concerns about stigma at the workplace.

A person’s career or job is often their calling and a provider of financial security. Workplace stigma creates a hostile work environment, affecting a person’s ability to do their job and their financial security. Financial insecurity and stigma make it harder for the patient to fight TB both in terms of means and motivation. Therefore, addressing stigma in the workplace is critical to patient well-being and recovery but also to their right to work with dignity.

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It's not how much we give
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