I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to speak with Pushpika Freitas, the Founder & President of MarketPlace: Handwork of India, https://www.marketplaceindia.com/. She was recently interviewed by the Chicago Tribune where the article’s title rightly credits her, “Fair-trade champion and MarketPlace founder empowers artisans in India”. This accomplished and dedicated woman has an inspiring story to share…
Pushpika Freitas was living with her family in Mumbai, India when one night a woman came to the door with a desperate request. She was someone her mother had been helping and she was there to ask her parents if they could hide a small stove. The woman’s husband who was often drunk and currently unemployed was threatening to sell it. She shared that it would take her six months to earn enough money to replace it.
Shortly after that Pushpika was walking through a nearby slum when she noticed a young girl about 14 years old in the middle of the day and she asked her, “Why aren’t you in school?” The girl explained that her mother had to work outside of the home so she stayed home to look after her siblings.
It was these two events that inspired Pushpika to start MarketPlace. She said, “I resolved to do something to empower women— to give them a voice in making decisions, learn skills and be able to earn a livelihood at home while raising a family.”
In 1980 Pushpika, along with her sister Lalita Monteiro, launched a business to empower women in their native India. They started out with three seamstresses in Mumbai. Today 480 female Indian artisans, organized into 14 co-ops, design and sew their clothing. Their catalog is distributed worldwide to an impressive 400,000 households.
Pushpika, whose voice is soft and kind, told me that people ask her, “‘Where did you get this idea?’ There was no idea. It just evolved. We started with three seamstresses and I brought their work to the states and people loved it! We went from three women to 480 as a result of doing and evaluating (and) I knew that if I was to change anything, I had to listen to the women and understand their thinking and not come with preconceived ideas.”
Pushpika remembered a time when she was at a 4th of July parade in her new hometown of Chicago when she saw someone wearing a MarketPlace skirt. She told me, “I was so excited! The 4th of July event was a lesson for me that the women worked so hard and did some great sewing and embroidery and never saw their work appreciated and got pride out of it. That was when we started concentrating on having more conversations between the artisans and customers.”
Originally, Pushpika and her sister were responsible for all of the production. They were working with about 75 artisans when Pushpika realized that she didn’t know some of them and she became concerned that they were creating a factory. It was then that they changed their course and helped the artisans create 3 co-ops. There was a lot of resistance at first. This was their livelihood! They were concerned they wouldn’t be able to manage on their own. Pushpika said, “Now the artisans have control over the business, they decide which fabric to use and who their supervisors are. There was a lot of hand holding for the first two years but it worked out for the best and today they would not want to go back.”
Freitas goes back to India twice a year to oversee MarketPlace’s operations and she considers their biggest success to be the artisan’s higher self-regard and quality of life. She said, “When you see the MarketPlace women, and you see the other women on the street, you really do see a difference. They are confident, they are looking you in the eye. You can see the spirit of the women and the excitement.”
One woman told her, “My husband makes me tea in the morning.” another, “My husband laminated my certificate and put it on the wall.” Another woman was married to a man whose parents wanted to marry off the couple’s 14 year old daughter. The woman told her husband, “She’s doing well in her classes, we’re not taking her out of school”. Her husband came back with, “You’ve been going to these meetings. You know how to talk, you can convince them.” Pushpika explained that these are tremendous successes in a very male dominated society and that today, “The women have a voice, they’re making decisions that are good for the family and in a good way, not in a way that undermines the husband in a way that makes him lose face. They’re keeping the family together.”
The coops have become a huge support system and the benefits are abundant. A seamstress told Pushpika, “I told someone in the group something I would never have told anyone else.” Another woman’s husband was having emotional problems and wanted to move the family out of town but she did not want to take their children out of school. A group from the co-op showed up and convinced him that leaving was not the right thing to do. Pushpika said it best, “These women are in it together.”
Pushpika is currently working on a book about her experiences as she has witnessed the strength and wisdom of these artisans. She promises to let GWA know once it hits the shelves and we’ll be sure to pass the word along. I know we’re all anxious to hear more from this amazing woman who has done so much to help make the world a better, more supportive and mutually respectful place.
Check out MarketPlace’s new summer line! You’re going to love it!!
MarketPlace Summer 2015