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Fighting Gender Inequality with a Needle and Thread

Her hand moves rhythmically, hovering in constant motion above the red earth. She draws in rice flour. A trail of white left in her wake, forming geometric swirls, arches, circles, and loops. Her kolam is elaborate, yet simple. Beautiful, but precise.

Each morning, millions of women in India rise and draw kolams on the ground outside their home. Yet their primary purpose is not decoration. Historically, they have been a sign of invitation and welcome. Made of rice flour, they are an offering to ants and other small organisms so they don’t have to walk too far for a meal.

In this way, a kolam embodies our call to care for the vulnerable among us. It is a humble effort to create a welcoming community of harmonious co-existence.

Like most people in Tirunelveli, a city in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, kolams were a familiar presence in Hyma’s childhood. They marked her path from home to school and back again. Her eyes would bounce from one to the next as she walked, careful not to smear the intricate designs with her footsteps.

As a child, Hyma witnessed this welcoming spirit—at least inside her home.

Her parents treated her and her siblings the same, loving and cherishing each one of them. They read books together, played games after dinner, and provided Hyma and her siblings all the opportunities they could afford.

Her mother in particular had an abounding compassion. She lived her life in service of others, especially children from low-income families. She started a children’s ministry where kids could come to play, learn, and grow.

Hyma always went along to the children’s ministry with her mother. They’d walk hand and hand along the red dirt paths, passing kolam after kolam. She’d play with the other kids and watch with pride as her mother led activities and taught stories. Hyma decided she wanted to be just like her when she grew up.

Though Hyma witnessed the generous welcoming spirit of kolam in her family, the older she got the less she saw it her community.

She was often treated differently than the boys at school and as the years went on, more and more of her peers dropped out to get married or have children of their own.

Tirunelveli is an education hub, yet the female literacy rate still lags behind. When faced with the choice, the safest bet for a family in poverty is to invest in their sons, who are more likely to get a good job one day. It is even worse in the rural areas on the outskirts of Tiruneleli, where poverty rates are higher and women face even fewer options.

As she became more aware of gender inequality, Hyma began to realize what a gift she had received. She had a family that affirmed her, the example of her mother to look up to, and access to education and opportunities that were denied to many.

After graduating from university, Hyma landed a good job at a bank, but she couldn’t shake the realities of inequality around her. She couldn’t pursue a better life while other women sacrificed their dreams and potential. Hyma knew she was called to something more.

She began to volunteer alongside her mother at the children’s ministry, but still felt a calling to serve women, too. She longed to embody the welcoming spirit modeled by her mother and dreamed of creating a space for women that was free from the hindrances of poverty and oppression.

Hyma saw the progress that had been made to reduce poverty in recent years, but knew inequalities still disadvantaged women. There was a lack of economic power and job opportunities in particular, which kept women disempowered, dependent, and vulnerable.

That’s when her idea was born.

She didn’t know how, but Hyma would start a business that would be a pathway out of poverty for women. It would create jobs, providing desperately-needed opportunities to learn skills and earn an income. Most importantly, it would be a safe, welcoming space for women often pushed to the margins of society.

Plus, once profitable, the business could help fund the children’s ministry.

Hyma began to excitedly share the idea with her family. Her relative Akil* volunteered to help her get started. She didn’t know him well, but he had business experience, which she knew would be invaluable as they crafted a business plan.

The business would specialize in sewing and tailoring—Olivia Tailoring, she’d call it. They got started on a business plan and soon raised the capital needed.

But just as Hyma ready to launch, Akil disappeared.

He must be going out of town for work for a few days, she thought. But when she checked the now-empty bank account that held their capital funding, it sunk in. He had run off with it. All the money they had worked to raise was gone. Months of hoping and planning evaporated in seconds.

She felt her dream slip away as a deep sense of betrayal washed over her. Here I am, another woman taken advantage of, she remarked at the irony, how can I help others, when I’m just as likely to be cheated and fooled? Am I really capable of this?

Hyma was at a loss for how to move forward. It would take months to raise the capital again, and this time she’d be doing it alone.

But as the weeks wore on, her resolve grew. She felt more determined than ever to make her dream a reality. If this injustice could happen to me, a middle class woman, how much more are women in poverty suffering? she thought. Though it means starting over, I know more than ever that this is what I’m called to do.

Step by step, Hyma made progress on her business plan. And in July of 2015, Olivia Tailoring opened its doors.

Her first two employees came from poor, rural families, but were quick to learn how to sew with Hyma’s help. They began to make cushions and soon decided that would be their specialty.

Olivia Tailoring was slowly getting off the ground, but Hyma encountered many challenges as a first-time entrepreneur. Finding customers and managing inventory were just two new tasks she was adjusting to, all while trying to foster the community she desired Olivia Tailoring to be for her employees.

While grappling with these challenges, Hyma met the leader of our local partner Business Seva’s chapter in Tirunelveli.

Hyma told him about Olivia Tailoring and her desire to create jobs and a welcoming community for women. He was ecstatic. As a movement of entrepreneurs and business owners using business as a ministry, Business Seva was the perfect partner for Hyma. They would not only be able to encourage her in pursuing the social mission of Olivia Tailoring, but also help her gain the skills needed to fulfill that mission.

At Business Seva’s meetings, Hyma met other businesspeople who mentored and encouraged her. She also participated in Partners Worldwide Business Training, which equipped her to run Olivia Tailoring more effectively.

And bit by bit, the business began to grow. Hyma’s team of two employees doubled to four. They were learning to sew—and were growing in their relationships with one another.

Still, the challenges persisted. At a Business Seva meeting, Hyma expressed her need for more customers. The more orders placed, the more work she could provide her employees, the more jobs she could create. The leaders of Business Seva got to work connecting Hyma with other potential customers in the Partners Worldwide network. Soon after, Olivia Tailoring began receiving orders from other cities and states across India.

With an influx of new orders, Hyma’s team doubled again from four to eight employees—and then climbed to ten. In addition to creating more jobs, they also began making just enough to help support the children’s ministry, too.

. . .

The pink sky brightens minute by minute as the morning sun rises. Hyma makes the short walk from her home to Olivia Tailoring, passing hunched over women drawing their kolams for the day.

She arrives at Olivia Tailoring, unlocks the gate, and begins setting up the workroom. One by one the women arrive and the room slowly fills with smiles and laughter. They settle into a semicircle on the floor and get to work.

Despite her short hair pulled back in a rough, simple braid, Hyma is queen-like in her navy and teal sari. Its embroidered edge graces the ground as she walks, quietly observing the women’s hands as they stitch, stuff, measure, and mend.

Hyma has a gentle power about her. It is evident in the safe ease of the room and the way the girls earnestly look to her for guidance.

Two of Hyma’s youngest employees work together to put the finishing touches on a batch of bright blue pillows. As teenagers from a rural community outside of Tirunelveli, they both dropped out of school at an early age. But now, they are using their income to pay their way through school.

As Hyma watched them work she was overwhelmed with gratitude. Not only has my dream come true, she thought, but I’ve allowed their dreams to come true, too.

She looked around at each one of her employees. Ten women with a job, ten women with a community of support, ten women with the opportunity to write a new story for their lives.

And Hyma knows their stories. They are stories of illiteracy and abuse; of education denied and husbands who have left. Stories of hunger and hopelessness and dreams destined to forever be out of reach. And my story, Hyma realized, of this dream that I once thought was out of reach, too. Yet here we are, realizing our dreams together. She smiled at the thought.

Sitting amongst them now, Hyma joins in the stuffing and stitching… and begins to dream new dreams. She dreams of multiplying the impact of Olivia Tailoring, of creating dozens more jobs, and generating enough revenue to fully sustain the children’s ministry.

Like a gate flung open, Hyma imagines extending her arms as wide as they can stretch, of drawing a kolam as vast as the sky, until all are welcomed and embraced.

She knows the audacity of her dreams. But she also knows the power of perseverance and partnership. With the encouragement and support of Business Seva and other local business leaders, she knows her audacious dreams are within reach.

Watch Hyma’s story to see her in action today, and consider making a gift to Partners Worldwide to equip more entrepreneurs like her. We work in partnership with local organizations like Business Seva to provide entrepreneurs with business training, mentoring, access to capital, and advocacy tools.

*Name has been changed