In Rural Madhya Pradesh, The Art Of Making Soaps Brightens Women’s Lives

The Ajeevika Mission Building opposite the Jawar office in the Panchayats is an otherwise indescribable structure except for the astonishing presence of a jar and a crop cutter at its entrance. Herein lies a story – about how women empower themselves through skills and transform their village and life for the better through the art of soap making.

It all started when Priyanka Arya, Auxiliary Cluster Manager for the National Rural Livelihoods Mission (NRLM) visited Jewar about three years ago. Arya was looking for women who were clear enough to organize the other women in the village into groups. That was when I met Vandana Barkhan. Arya saw through Barkhan’s long gungat and found the potential in it. This was the way with the top ten members, the first women’s self-help group, the Shivshankar Livelihood and Self-Help Group (SHG), aiming to organize and train women from low and middle income families. Through appropriate livelihood microfinance facilities.

Display of handmade soap made by the ladies of the village of Jewar.  (Photo: Muhammad Asif Seddiqi)
Display of handmade soap made by the ladies of the village of Jewar. (Photo: Muhammad Asif Seddiqi)

At that time, most women in the village were confined to their homes, as the patriarchy prevented them from going out to make a living. But once Shivshankar SHG was established, many other women came to be part of similar groups. Thus, soon after, several self-help groups of 10 people appeared in the village. Today, there are 32 such groups in a village of about 5,500 inhabitants, all of which are coordinated by Barkhane.

Once the women got together, they embarked on various schemes to improve their situation. One of these plans included a loan of 12,000 rupees, part of which was used to purchase a tractor and a crop-cutter, both of which now occupy center stage in front of the Ajeevika Expedition Building. These machines were supposed to be provided at a discounted hourly rate to the farmers in the village for agricultural work.

Refine women’s skills

Meanwhile, once the self-help groups were formed, experts from Jabalpur were called by Panchayat Nanda district chief executive Bhalav Keshar to train the women in soap making. Training ended only a couple of months ago, but the women here have already mastered this technique. The three-day workshop provided training to 15 women belonging to five different self-help groups and included teaching them how to make herbal soap from goat’s milk under the Skill Government of India mission.

Women at the Ajeevika Mission Building make herbal soap from scratch.  (Photo: Muhammad Asif Seddiqi)
Women at the Ajeevika Mission Building make herbal soap from scratch. (Photo: Muhammad Asif Seddiqi)

Currently, women buy goat’s milk from village milk merchants to prepare the base, adding glycerin, charcoal and essence as needed. They manage the packaging, while the panchayats market the product and get orders. The money earned from the panchayats is deposited into the bank accounts of the women working in the soap manufacturing.

From earning almost nothing in the past, each of these women now earns Rs 4,000 to Rs 6,000 a month from soap making. This ensured them an important place in their families, while making them more ambitious with regard to the well-being of their children. Since then, many women have accepted their children into private schools and have become upwardly mobile in many ways.

Although the project is still in its early stages, the women are already starting to make waves. When NRLM officials and panchayat made a tour to inform people in other states of the achievements under NRLM, their work impressed the masses so much that they received bulk orders from Nagpur and Hyderabad. Recently, they also received orders from Nashik.

Transforming the social and economic status of women

Besides empowering women economically, the main achievement of NRLM has been in changing their status within their families, while making them socially proficient.

Vandana Barkhan, Pooja Pal and Nisha Sen of Ajivika Mission stand proudly.  (Photo: Muhammad Asif Seddiqi)
Vandana Barkhan, Pooja Pal and Nisha Sen of Ajivika Mission stand proudly. (Photo: Muhammad Asif Seddiqi)

Take the case of Barkhan, the local Ajeevika mission chief, who belongs to a low-income household. Barkhan was part of a joint family and, like many other women in her village, was a housewife. Joining Shivshankar SHG first saw her selling manure from the dung of cattle and goats that her family had raised for a living. Once she started making soap, she embarked on a new phase in her life. Having been the initiator of the first self-help group in her village, Barkhan now coordinates all other self-help groups here as well.

Likewise, Nisha Sen was a typical neighbour’s housewife, unable to get out of her house. All she could manage was take on some tailoring to supplement her family’s income. Joining Radha SHG two years ago opened a whole new world for her. Since she never needs to spend more than 4-5 hours making soap at Ajeevika Mission, her family does not object to her using her newly acquired skills to increase their income.

Vandana Barkhan coordinates with more than 30 self-help groups in the village.  (Photo: Muhammad Asif Seddiqi)
Vandana Barkhan coordinates with more than 30 self-help groups in the village. (Photo: Muhammad Asif Seddiqi)

The Laxmibai Kailash story is another example. When she lost her husband Kalam, Laxmibai had to resort to manual labor to make ends meet. Joining a self-help group gave her access to microfinance and enabled her to buy a crane with a loan of 20,000 rupees to earn a living from sugarcane. At first, she ran the shop herself, but later she made her son run it. Thus, she can also free up time for soap making training and earn a fair income to contribute to the family kitty.

Improving household income

The involvement of women in soap making and other activities promoted by self-help groups has ensured improved incomes for women’s husbands and families, whether they are herders or farmers. Farm families can rent tractors and crop cutters at low rates due to the women’s self-help groups.

Likewise, when women set out to make soap, they needed a regular supply of goat’s milk. This means there is a regular market for its sellers. Families like the Barkhan family and the Pooja Pal family have benefited greatly.

Started by soap industry experts and an active member of Jai Mata Di SHG, Pal told 101Reporters, “We have four to five goats of our own. Looking at our uncle and cousins, our extended family has 40 goats and many buffaloes.”

Barkhan, who belongs to a family that raises goats, also ensured a regular income for her relatives.

Incidentally, the 80 percent subsidy through NRLM, income from selling soap and contracting crop cutters and tractors to farmers, has helped the women start paying off their loan as well.

It’s still early days, but if progress over the past few months is any indication, NRLM is lightening and beautifying the bleak lives of rural women, thanks to a plethora of colorful soaps.

(Author is Khandwa-based on Freelance journalist and member of 101 ReportersGrassroots All-India Network of Correspondents.)

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