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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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Queen’s Garments

A life-changing sewing program for young women in southern India

Inside a large house in the wooded hills of Kottayam, a district in the southern Indian state of Kerala, Sangeetha Pushpam crouched over a sewing machine, stitching fabric. She is 19, and has been working for four years to help support her family, which her father had abandoned.

After dropping out of school at 15, Sangeetha was hired by a cashew factory. She was getting paid practically nothing, however, and the factory conditions were taking their toll on her health. She suffered chest pains. Sangeetha wanted to move on and enrolled in a tailoring course. She did not have enough money to complete it, however, and she dropped out.

Fortunately, Sangeetha was invited to Kottayam to join Queen’s Garments, a sewing shop run by the Congregation of the Mother of Carmel, a religious community for women of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church. Founded in 1866, the community includes 6,000 sisters who run charities, schools and hospitals throughout India and abroad.

In a converted novitiate, Sangeetha works with 20 other young women from poor, often broken, families.

“Our mission is to promote plain living, high thinking and selfless service to eradicate poverty and suffering,” said Sister Suma Rose, who started Queen’s Garments in May 2004.

There is a special need for helping women in India, Sister Suma said. They are “undervalued, underrecognized, underrepresented and marginalized in society.” Sister Suma has just completed her Ph.D. at Assumption Women’s College in Changanacherry and published her dissertation, Polity, Society and Women in Kerala.

The working women live rent free at Queen’s Garments but must provide their own meals. The sisters arrange contracts for school uniforms, satchels and other items. After the production costs are covered, the payment is split among the workers based on how many items they produce. Each of the women opens a savings account, and each puts away about $100 a year, a significant amount in a country where the per capita income is about $700. As the program picks up, the women probably will earn more, the sisters said.

Much of the savings go toward dowries. Though officially illegal since 1961, the dowry system remains in practice – much like the caste system, which was also officially outlawed.

Throughout India, the majority of marriages are arranged, and a bride’s family is expected to pay a dowry to the groom’s. Even poor families can be expected to pay as much as $3,000. And in Kerala, which has the highest unemployment rate (almost half the population) of any Indian state, such payments can be especially burdensome. Families “unlucky” enough to have several daughters can be ruined by the cost of dowries.

“We are very much against the dowry system, but what to do?” said an exasperated Sister Josie Thalody.

Already, three women have left the program, using their savings toward their dowries. There is no limit to the women’s stay, but most expect to stay only a few years before starting a family.

Sangeetha, though, is not yet thinking of marriage. She wants to save enough money to buy a sewing machine and set up her own small business. “I’ve found real happiness here, because we see and experience the love of the sisters, which makes me forget the pain I felt at home.”

Not all of the women employed at Queen’s Garments are Christian. Though there are more Christians in Kerala than in any other Indian state, they are still a minority. Of Kerala’s 33 million residents, an estimated 55 percent are Hindu, 25 percent are Muslim and 20 percent are Christian.

“I am really happy here because of the way we all get along and because of the infectious love we receive from the sisters,” said Manju Maniyan, a 21-year-old Hindu.

All women are expected to attend common reflections and faith sharing. Catholics, however, are encouraged to join in the celebration of the Holy Qurbana (the Syro-Malabar Divine Liturgy), Sister Clare Joel said, while Hindus and Muslims worship according to their own traditions.

Like the sisters, the residents live regimented schedules. They rise at 5:30 for prayer, work most of the day, with breaks for meals and more prayers, and retire at 10 p.m. They are not allowed to leave the compound unless accompanied by a sister and can receive phone calls only on Sundays. Silence is encouraged during the women’s work hours.

The regimen helps the women “form good character through prayer and the strict schedule promotes discipline,” Sister Clare said. “They will learn good moral values, and by earning money and saving they will become self-sufficient.” The women undergo spiritual counseling programs and self-evaluations several times a year. In essence, the sisters are running a finishing school, not for rich debutantes but for poor women.

The workshop is divided into two floors. Upstairs, the women make school uniforms and other garments. Downstairs, there are heavier machines for making handbags. Storerooms are piled high with raw materials and finished goods.

The sisters, who have been trained in sewing, supervise the work and help the women improve their skills. Sister Suma stressed that it is not just sewing the sisters are teaching. “Here, they are experiencing the dignity of labor and the dignity of womanhood, strengthening their spiritual and moral fiber, without which no individual or social development would be possible.”

Based in Wales, photojournalist Sean Sprague frequently visits India.

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