How this NGO went to villages across Andhra and trained out of work women to create 10 lakh masks and save their families

The initiative trains women in tailoring masks and buys the masks from them to distribute among villages, healthcare workers
The tailors at work. Credit:RDT
The tailors at work. Credit:RDT

Damsam Kistamma is a 25-year-old woman belonging to the Chenchu community, an indigenous tribe from Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. Many members of the tribe live in the Srisailam region in the Nallamala forests. Kistamma used to work as a daily wage earner with MGNREGA and as a seller of seasonal forest products on other days along with her husband. Both were rendered jobless by the lockdown. “We anyway depended on small odd jobs for survival and now we are left with nothing. Even if we collect forest produce, how do we sell it and to whom?” asks Kistamma. 

Erramma from Kuderu in Anantapur is a tailoring instructor and has a family of five - including her husband, mother, sister and son. Now since her husband, who primarily works as a farmer, has been rendered jobless during the lockdown, the family is really struggling.

Why highlight these two stories from lakhs of similar tales of woe from across the country?

Kistamma and Erramma are two women who may not have physically met but they have had a unifying experience, thanks to the Rural Development Trust, an organisation that empowers rural communities in India and supports them in their struggle to eradicate poverty, suffering and injustice.

The lockdown resulted in absolute horror for daily wage earners, who overnight, lost their means of income and were left to fend for themselves with no help from the government. The provisions that were announced only much later either fell short or didn't reach everyone. Understanding that there was going to be an increasing need of both — a livelihood and safety from COVID-19 — the RDT came up with a plan.

And so they did the most logical thing.

The team at RDT decided to train women to stitch masks — to tailors as well as others who could have the talent to acquire the skill fast. Safia Begum is the Assistant Director of the Integrated Development Trust, a sister concern of the RDT. IDT trains artisans and helps them make a living. Another part of the organisation, that Begum runs, works with specially-abled women by teaching them tailoring and helping them make a living. "The women face a lot of discrimination in their homes, villages and other spaces. So we train them on how to make handicrafts and help them set up shops, display them at local exhibitions. A lot of them have a wide customer base in Spain as well," Safia explained.

So when COVID-19 struck India, Safia spoke with her executive director and decided that she could get the tailors in her workshops to start making masks. She runs three workshops in three different locations and the women got down to business. When the lockdown was implemented, most of the women went home and only 30 or so women remained. "We were making masks continuously. We first distributed it to healthcare workers, doctors, nurses, anganwadi workers, police and then many people from RDT who were working in the frontline as well. But we were running out," Safia said. They were providing three masks each. The team took the advise of healthcare professionals to find out what material and texture is necessary for the masks, how they should be sterilised and how to make them most effective. 

Then Safia and her team decided that they could expand their work. They decided they could train other tailors in other villages as well. Since only two people are allowed to travel in a car, Safia and her colleague sought permission and travelled to 21 villages. At the villages they held a single session and trained about 10-15 people, "We are an organisation that is nearly 50 years old so we have a wide network and know team leaders, community workers and several others who selected these people to attend the classes. We could only train 10-15 since we had to maintain the social distancing norm," she said. 

RDT provides all the raw material to the tailors – cloth, thread and the materials. But the interesting part is that RDT purchases these masks from the workers which ensures they make a living through this task. The masks are purchased at six rupees per unit from the tailors. Erramma was one of the women to attend this workshop, "In the workshop, we also learnt about the importance of maintaining hygiene, washing hands with soap regularly, keeping the house clean as also the area where we are stitching masks. I also gave this information to my neighbours," she said.

The mask-making has made Erramma a proud woman, "This lockdown has been tough. My family and I are mainly getting through because of the mask production. I make around 40-50 masks every day. It makes me proud that my labour is useful to them in these crucial times and I am happy that I am not sitting idle at home."

Not just tailors, even the artisans contribute to the mask-making by helping with the patterns, the finishing work and helping with other small things. That's how Kistamma comes into the picture, when RDT started a leaf cup and plate making unit, in partnership with IDT, she became one of the 28 women to work there. And since the unit stopped working during the lockdown, she went on to get trained in the mask-making workshop.The sewing machines and raw materials were provided by RDT and the Integrated Tribal Development Agency (ITDA) granted permission to use their building for this purpose, "Out of the eight members, only three people including me were selected because they were particular about the stitching quality. I am glad to be a part of this because it has given me a source of income in these times. It is very difficult for us to buy masks in this region. By making our own masks, we can be self-sufficient and need not worry.  My aim now is to produce 50 masks per day, a thrilled Kistamma said.

These 10-15 tailors who attended each of the workshops, then went on to train groups back in their hometowns. "The tailors do need help and so they got their family members to help too. And then held classes for others as well," she said. Through this method, over 2081 people in 375 villages managed to get trained in mask-making. Majorly in the districts of Anantapur, Kurnool and Srisailam. The tailors make about 50-70 masks everyday. Now though almost every one has come forward to help in the initiative, including everyone at RDT. Together, the team and the trained mask-makers have produced over ten lakh masks - the local tailors produced 9,64,962 masks, while the artisans at RDT produced 69,948 masks.

The team also made a training video and thus hope that the total number of those who eventually received the training is much larger. "Now we have distributed it to everybody at the village-level but we are yet to distribute it to all those who are among the poorest and those dwelling in slum areas. And we hope to start distributing outside Anantapur soon too," Safai said.

 Doctors have told the team that masks might be needed atleast for another year, so the mask-making could very well go on for a year as they are running out of masks almost everyday. "They say till we find a vaccine, we'll need masks. So doesn't look like we'll end our production any time soon," Safia said.

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