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Sustainable “Shelter” for Indian Women

Sustainable “Shelter” for Indian Women

Can design change the lives of dozens of Indian sex workers and their children, breaking the cycle of dependency and despair? Alumni Colleen Clines MLA 10 and Devon Miller MLA 10, co-founders of a nonprofit called Anchal, believe it can.

As graduate students at RISD, they first traveled to Calcutta as part of Professor Elizabeth Hermanns Landscape Architecture seminar, Art + Design for the Developing World. There they met with staff members at a local NGO dedicated to helping commercial sex workers through HIV education and academic assistance for their children. Moved by the experience of meeting the women and hearing their stories, Clines and Miller resolved to develop a self-sustaining program that would provide them with alternative sources of income.

“RISD taught us that design is more than purely visual,” says Clines. “It can be the vehicle for positive social change and creative problem solving.” Once they returned to Providence, they made cards and notebooks, raising $400 at a RISD student art sale – enough to buy the fabric and sewing machine needed to get their new program off the ground. ­

Anchal – which translates as both “shelter” and the edge of a sari used to provide comfort and protection for loved ones – now employs almost 60 women in Calcutta and Ajmer who design and create kantha quilts from recycled saris collected locally. “We were always passionate about having whatever was generated by the women be about themselves,” Clines explains. “It probably would have been easier to give them precise guidelines to follow, but we wanted to have their voices heard as artisans.”

Clines recalls that for one of the first design workshops she led in India, they had brought magazines for the women to cut up in order to create simple collages that would teach them about color and composition. Initially surprised that “they were all very hesitant” to dive right in to the project, she and Miller later learned that most of the women were illiterate and had never held a magazine before, much less cut one to shreds. This was the first of many such cultural lessons they would learn along the way.

Anchal now provides the women involved with regular income, healthcare for themselves and their families, and secondary school tuition for their children. Although many of the women are still forced to work as prostitutes on the side, the program builds their self-confidence, allows them to control a part of their own income and breaks the cycle, so that their children have alternative choices in life.

“A lot of these women have now pledged to keep their daughters away from [prostitution],” says Anchal partner Jaimala Gupta. And they have regained the courage to send their children to school, regardless of the stigma.”

In addition to the critical partnerships Anchal has built in India, the organization has connected with a number of foundations here in the US. Last year, the organization earned a $50,000 grant from Dining for Women, a nonprofit giving circle dedicated to empowering women and girls living in extreme poverty. “Small groups of women meet once a month and make a donation to the featured program,” Clines explains, “instead of spending the money on a dinner out. Anchal was featured last October.” The organization also won the 2012 Google Alumni Impact Award, a one-time grant to support social action.

Another important connection was made when actress/activist America Ferrera visited New Light, the NGO in Calcutta where Clines and Miller first learned of the plight of these sex workers, to film the PBS documentary Half the Sky. “America met our women and fell in love with the project,” says Clines. Ferrera has since been a prominent supporter of Anchal and helped the organization launch a line of scarves that are sold on Anchal’s website and via its online merchandising partner Given Goods.

When she’s not working in India, Clines is based in Louisville, KY, where she also works as an adjunct Landscape Architect professor at the University of Kentucky. Miller is less hands-on than she used to be but still an active member of Anchal’s Board of Directors. Their goal is to continue to expand Anchal within India and to take the model to needy women in other countries and right here in the US.

“We’re gaining ground within the communities,” says Clines, “but there is so much need for it. The commercial sex trade is a rampant issue globally.”

Simone Solondz

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