I recently undertook three weeks of volunteering in India, with the NGO’s IVHQ and EDUCARE, where I stayed with a local family in the town of Naddi. I chose the women’s education and empowerment group and worked primarily with a migrant community based just outside of the town of Dharamshala.
This migrant community live in temporary housing constructed from found materials such as large branches, fabric and tarpaulin and do not have access to clean water or sanitary washing and waste systems. Employment prospects are rare and difficult to come by and they face constant threat of eviction from the local town council.
The aim of my volunteering was to establish a relationship with the young women in the camp and build a scenario where a sustainable development project is possible. EDUCARE has a strong eco-friendly policy and I had this in mind as I developed my plans for the program. Their policy is not to go insert themselves into a situation and change things but to create opportunities that can be taken on and eventually run by the community independent of the NGO.
Back in the UK I have a project called ‘Feeling Rubbish’ which involves recycling plastic bags by knitting lengths of plastic and creating washbags with them. Part of the name and concept is a play on the idea of transforming rubbish into something useful but also using a literal emotion of ‘feeling rubbish’ to create something practical. With my background of working with mental health I strive to have a mindful and therapeutic aspect to my creativity.
With this in mind, I decided to use the many discarded cement sacks that can be found almost everywhere and decided to create handmade bags out of them. I’ve always loved puns and decided to call the project ‘Cementing Futures’ – using both the cement sack material as a resource but also a play on the idea of ‘cementing’ a source of income for the women involved. Using the sewing machine of the family I stayed with I designed three prototypes and began to teach the women how to make them. My idea is that once they have been made the NGO sells them and the women of the camp earn an income through their involvement.
Of course, working in the migrant camp directly on the dirt floor and with the inquisitive children fiddling with the machine, progress was a little slow. However, the main message of my project was that the women can create their own source of income and become more independent. With the caste system and lack of support for young women being what it is in India, there are of course issues, but with the support of EDUCARE it is possible that these young women can begin to see their own potential.
It was an honour to work alongside them and I watched them develop skills, understanding and pride in their work. At times I felt I was not doing enough but understood that sometimes even just a couple of hours where someone feels listened to and valued can make all the difference.
My three weeks quickly came to an end and I was devastated to leave. However, talking to the volunteer coordinator and a couple of interns who are staying for longer we devised a plan to keep the project going. Since I have left they have established a system where the migrant camp can earn a small income through collecting the cement sacks and washing them before they are sewn. This not only motivates the camp as a community but also increases respect for the environment and allows the women to take control of the project and continue outside of the NGO’s help. We plan to have a website and small shop available to sell the bags on behalf of the migrant community and have had a large amount of interest already.
Due to time restrictions I am actually sewing a small number of the bags for those in the UK who would like one and then donating the money to the NGO. This money will be used for materials for sewing and hopefully towards renting a room where the women can work more easily.
As a future Art Psychotherapist, it was wonderful to see how a creative exercise can transcend both language and cultural barriers. Although the women did not speak English and my earnest (but hilarious) attempts at Hindi did not always work the physical act of creating allowed us to communicate and enjoy spending time together.
We have an Instagram account under the name @cementingfutures – check it out for updates!