“All three of our daughters have graduated from college, but there are no jobs. My youngest daughter is a beautician with a degree in Geography. She is also a part-time tailor,” says Reena Naskar of Maipit, a coastal village overlooking the increasingly-sparse mangrove forests of the Sunderbans.

Naskar and her husband worked in Delhi for seven years as domestic help to make enough money to educate their girls. “We were forced to migrate because there was no work here. We were very helpless at the time. And now, we are home because we lost work during the pandemic. On top of that, the cyclones have taken away the little we have. Our SHGs small pickle-making business has raised our hopes of an additional income.”

”Our husbands work as labour in tea shops, as mechanics & carpenters.”

Reena Naskar is one of the 150-odd members of 15 women Self-Help Groups (SHGs) organized by the Baikunthapur Tarun Sangha, a local NGO in Kultali block in South 24 Parganas in West Bengal. Oxfam India provided initial relief after Cyclone Amphan ravaged the Sunderbans in May 2020, right in the middle of a global pandemic-induced lockdown. In February 2021, Oxfam offered livelihood options to women SHGs in the form of goatery, vermicompost, pickle, and bori (pulse cakes) making. Each group received raw material, equipment, training, goats, and their medicines and vaccination worth Rs 25,000.

Pickles, jam and jellies produced by the women SHGs.

Almost a year down the line, the livelihood intervention has translated into modest and immediate relief from unemployment and poverty in the middle of a global pandemic. It has also given lasting hopes of both financial independence and collective empowerment for women.

Susmita Jana of the Banhishikha group hopes to expand their bori-making business. “Right now, access to the urban market is our biggest problem. Almost every family in the neighbourhood makes their own bori. They don’t need our bori for their daily needs. And those who need large amounts buy factory-made goods.”

Some women are only relatively well-off to work on their own land and cattle stock, while others tend to their own homes and spend the rest of the day as daily wage labour on other people’s land. Pratima Halder of the Matribhumi group is employed by five to six landowners per week. Widowed a year back, Halder works relentlessly to see her son through school. Halder, along with ten other women, is making vermicompost.

Pratima Das of Ambika Nagar village with her goats.

Pratima Das, whose group is farming goats, says, “We get together and discuss how we can improve the health and diet of the cattle. We don’t have enough land to grow green fodder crops that the animals need, and in monsoon, it becomes particularly difficult to find dry fodder. A few months back, we received training in growing hydroponics fodder for the goat. It has been a feasible solution to the dearth of land, and irrespective of the near-constant rains, it is a very nutritious source of fodder for the goats.”

A large part of the male population of Sunderbans work as migrant workers in the faraway states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, and the Andamans. The wounds of the crisis that they were subjected to by the unplanned lockdown are still raw. Many don’t have work to return to. And the consecutive cyclones have destroyed the little they had at home.

These small businesses hold the potential for financial empowerment not only for women but also for their families. They have become an occasion for education, empowerment, and community. And to reimagine their aspirations where women play a more autonomous role.

The author is an independent journalist who has reported from the Sunderbans on behalf of Oxfam India, to highlight the reality of the region’s female laborers and their struggle to make ends meet.

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