Sabira Khatun, 25, used to work in a private school in Jania of the Barpeta district in Assam till January 2020. Like many others, she was rendered jobless after the school was shut due to the COVID-induced lockdown. 

Khatun was left with nothing but to sit idle in her house in Gagalmari village, which faces flood and erosion every year, at the hands of the Chaulkhowa river. 

The school job was crucial in running the family of five, as it was more sustainable than the rice and vegetable cultivation her father did in the char areas. Every year, devastating floods ruin their rice and cucumber cultivation, causing huge losses.

“I was very worried. Before the pandemic, my life was routine. I was regularly teaching in the school and sponsoring the school fees of my two younger brothers. After the lockdown, I used to sit idle and overthink about the future.”

Amrapari was created as a way of sustainable livelihoods for women in char-chapori areas in Assam

Like Sabira, many other women engaged in daily wage work found themselves to be idle.

“Even the men who used to go out of the state and work mostly came back. Some could not even come back. All of us were looking at a very dark future.” The men in the household who used to work in brick-kilns, construction etc. also lost work.

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Manjuwara Mullah, a rights activist and a community worker, used to distribute relief packages during the initial stages of the lockdown. However, she soon realised that giving a relief package won’t solve unemployment and poverty. She needed to come up with something that could provide a sustainable livelihood.

“As the Covid-19 pandemic took siege, I was deeply worried about the predicament of the women we work with. In the early days of the first lockdown, we received numerous distress calls as women, typically daily-wage earners, were suddenly out of work. I was emotionally distraught as I heard story after story of women’s struggles as they contended with acute food insecurity, atrocities at home and the fear of the pandemic. Any relief that we managed to organise was negligible in light of the massive scale of the pandemic,” Mullah writes in her blog.

Field Coordinator Sabira Khatun (standing, in green) with the women artisans

During those bleak times, Manjuwara took embroidery as a way of coping. Following the legacy of her forefathers and her mother, she soon discovered herself layering old fabric between embroidered sheets to turn it into a “kheta”- a particular quilt used widely among the rural people in char-chapori areas.

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Apart from the lockdown, a spate of massive floods hit the riverine areas and created huge food insecurity. That’s when the idea of establishing a self-help group and collective to stitch and sell quilts struck her. She shared the idea with women in several chars and got a strong response. That’s how Amrapari (which means ‘We Can’) came into existence in September 2020 in Rupkuchi village, located between the Beki and Chaulkhowa rivers in the Barpeta district of Assam. 

“During September last year, one of my friends came to me and said that instead of sitting idle, I should meet Manju Baideo (sister). She was giving jobs to many women. That’s how I came to know about Amrapari,” Sabira Khatun, the former teacher who now works as a field coordinator of Amrapari, told EastMojo

Manjuwara Mullah (standing in middle) with the Amrapari artisans

Launched in September 2020, Amrapari now has 40 women artisans making and selling embroidered quilts: a legacy of women in char-chapori areas. However, many people in the current generation have forgotten the work.

“Amrapari was created as a way of sustainable livelihoods for women in char-chapori areas in Assam. Now, after one year, all the artisans associated with Amrapari have been able to become economically independent,” Manjuwara Mullah, the founder, told EastMojo

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The 40 women artisans are divided into eight groups, each consisting of five. One group can make at least 5-6 quilts a month.

“Most of the quilts are sold at markets in Guwahati and Delhi. Some are sold locally as well. We first brainstorm the designs with Manju Baideo and then start stitching,” said Khatun.

These quilts are sold for Rs 3000-Rs 5000 apiece, depending on the artwork. About 85 per cent of the profit goes to the artisans. The rest is used for buying raw material.

A way towards gender justice

The lockdown was a huge problem, but sadly, it was not the only battle that these women were fighting. Hit by poverty, early marriage and climate change, rural women in char-chapori (dunes) areas often experience gender-based violence. They are mostly kept out of the decision-making process. Amrapari has been trying to reduce gender parity by empowering women in these areas.

Rural women who were earlier dependent on their spouses and did not have any say in decision-making in the household are now empowered to protest domestic abuse and to contribute to household spending and also afford education for their children. Because of economic independence, many girls have been able to prevent child marriage of their own and women of their children.” Manjuwara told EastMojo.

Emerging data from various researches show a sharp increase in domestic abuse cases against women during the Covid-19 lockdown. The National Commission for Women (NCW) registered a 250 per cent increase in domestic violence complaints in April last year.

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Covid-induced lockdown also brought miseries to Shehnaz Khatun, a 25-year-old artisan. She often faced domestic abuse at the hands of her husband during the lockdown. But her life changed forever after her association with Amrapari.

The quilts are sold for Rs 3000-Rs 5000 a piece, depending on the artwork

“Life became hard during the lockdown. If I asked for money from my husband, he used to get angry and would beat me often. But with Amrapari, I earn money by sitting at home and stitching quilts. Now I no longer depend on my husband for money. I can contribute to the house now. He has stopped beating me,” she said.

Importantly, the physical labour involved in quilt-making is much less than working in agricultural fields owned by the wealthier sections of the society. They also make a higher profit by making quilts than working as a daily wage labourer. 

Gulesha Khatun, a resident of Rupakuchi village in Barpeta district, is now 40 years old. She was married off at the age of 12. By the time she was 18, she was a mother. Both Gulesha and her husband used to work as daily wage labourers. However, because of the lockdown, both were rendered jobless.

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“I had been working as a daily wage labourer for many years. It’s a physically challenging job. Since the lockdown in Feb 2020, I have been out of work. Manju Baideo came to me one day and asked if I was interested in doing something that involves less physical labour yet enough to earn some money. That’s how I got associated with Amrapari. Now, along with quilts, I make masks and dupattas as well.”

Starting small, growing every day

Stitching a Kheta was considered mundane and regular work in the houses in char-chapori areas. However, the unique designs, vibrant colours, fine embroidery and a zeal for self-sufficiency has now made the work catch national attention.

The 40 women artisans are divided into eight groups, each consisting of five. One group can make at least 5-6 quilts a month.

At present, Manjuwara Mullah is busy showcasing the work of Amrapari at the India Exposition Mart 2021 in Noida.

She has also created an online platform for selling the products. It is not only confined to quilt making. It has a collection of masks, khetas and bedsheets.

While some of the members are busy in the exposition, other artisans are working back in the two centres of Amrapari to complete bulk orders of 11000 facemasks.

“This is the first-ever bulk order that we have received so far. I am delighted,” said Manjuwara Mullah.

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