I love Charlie and the Chocolate factory; Roald Dahl’s stories infuse my memories of childhood. His world was filled with irrigable grown-ups, clever but terribly misunderstood children, fantastical gob-stopping sweets and great miracles, and when I was small they appealed immeasurably to my understanding of how life worked – when the only time that mattered was how long until I was finally big. The dream of getting a golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate factory, that land of childhood fantasy (and nightmares) is something that has never quite left me. To this day I wistfully hope for a little glimpse of the shiny golden stuff whenever I open a bar of chocolate (fairtrade naturally).
In November 2014 we headed to India to trace the journey of muka kids fairtrade organic cotton, from cotton seed to garment. That journey started in rural India, in the state of Orissa and in the villages of the cotton farmers who are part of the Pratima Agro fairtrade cooperative there. I want to tell you a little bit of the story of the women & girls I met in those villages, and why I left there feeling like Charlie Bucket – like I may have already got the golden ticket.
It was hot in Orissa, not dripping, searing heat, as this was India in winter, but still 30c or so, and dry, so dry. In this dry warm winter, India has an intriguing colour pallet. The earth and dust is brick red, and the sky is a wash of colour, gentle and soft, the green of the rice crops is iridescent, and birds alight like tiny shimmering jewels on the trees. Rural India is an achingly beautiful place, but its beauty belies its harsh reality.
Waiting down a narrow rutted and dusty red track, surrounded on all sides by scrappy cotton bushes, was a small group of women in saris, men, children, and plenty of buffalo.
We were enthusiastically welcomed by these kind people with strings of marigolds and flowers (this sort of stuff that makes me feel a little self-conscious I must say, but I took a breath and just went with it, we were their guests).
We were led to the mud brick meeting building that they had built with their faritrade premium (2% of the fairtrade cotton goods that are sold comes back to them in the form of the premium), the villagers sat on the floor, I sat on a chair in front of them. I felt unjustly exalted. They waited expectantly. The wonderful Mehathab, who had, bless her, travelled 36 uncomfortable, foul food filled, hours with us across the continent by rail, also waited. I felt overwhelmed. But then my verbal nature took over.
Through an interpreter speaking Oriya (there are over 1300 different unique languages in India), and occasionally interrupted by a cacophony of cell phones (strangely out of place it seemed in the context), I talked with these farmers. The women and men. We talked of many things to do with fairtrade and organic cotton farming, health care, maternal health, all of which I will touch on in other blogs.
Then I specifically asked the women about their children and their hopes for them. Without hesitation both the women and men talked about education, that their greatest concern and biggest desire was education for their girls past primary school age. All the women in these villages, young and old, had stopped school at around aged 10 or 11. Their schooling up to that age was patchy at best because in rural India the teachers are often not educated past primary school level themselves; they certainly have no teaching qualifications. When I asked what was preventing the girl’s further education I was told it was because they had to ride bicycles to the secondary school 20 km away and it was too dangerous to do so. Violence against women, especially alcohol fuelled sexual violence was a depressing reality of their lives, to the extent that they could not risk their girls going to school. This stunned me. These girls had only a very limited education because of something so very basic as freedom from harm outside of the home.
What is the effect of this incomplete education for these women I met? They had become prisoners of their powerlessness. Without fairtrade to guarantee a buyer for their crop at a price that covers their costs they have absolutely no choice but to eke out their living in subsistence farming, living hand to mouth, month to month with no way to supplement their incomes, starvation and ruin is never far from the door.
By being part of a Fairtrade cotton cooperative they are at least guaranteed a fair price and buyers for their cotton, and support and training to develop better more sustainable farming practices, BUT (and this is what really hit home for me) because of their educational deficit, they still have very limited choices. Fairtrade cotton is still very new and subject to massive volatility in demand, in addition to which cotton is not something they can grow all year round (as it is rain fed), so these women are forced to migrate their entire family across the country for six months every year when the cotton does not grow in the dry season. They do road and other basic manual labour. They cannot stay in their home village as they have no alternative skills with which to earn an income from there.
For those women and girls where the social structures fall away (In India this means a father or male relative or income earner dies for example), they are forced to the city to seek alternatives sources of income. For rural women with no education in north India these alternatives are more tragic than you and I care to look in the eye. Work by dedicated people such as the team at the loyal workshop tells you clearly that for women with no education, no skills and no power there is a sad and often inevitable path to exploitation. Even when these women find the courage and help to flee the sex trade they have often been forced or even sold into, the fact that their brains were not exposed to new knowledge and intellectual challenges after young childhood means that learning new skills is an uphill battle for them. It is not as simple as teaching a adult to read – they have lost 10 years of education we had when we had plastic and flexible neural pathways to benefit learning and knowledge acquisition.
It is a bloody grim picture I paint I know, but what is says so clearly, so loudly is that my education (and yours) is a priceless and tangible golden ticket. These girls and women desire only to open that bar of chocolate and see that glimpse of gold too, because with that ticket life changes so immeasurably, so unbelievably. With such a ticket they will have that fantastically, tantalising thing, that thing that my children, and your children have. Choice.
This is no Roald Dahl story, the baddies don’t get their comeuppance by way of some wild childlike retribution, BUT what is the same as those childhood adventures is the unique power we, the narrators of this story find we hold. We have the power to stand next to these women & girls and slowly and incrementally empower them in the way we have been empowered with our education. Some of it is as simple as sending more fairtrade cotton business their way through our purchasing. Buying fairtrade organic cotton where it is available and asking for it where it is not. A lot rests also with empowering the women themselves, through the provision of educational tools in rural families and schools (like this one), and making available financial support for their small enterprises. The women in Kacherbadi for example had started a small food in schools programme, but told me they were in desperate need of a small loan (about $3000) to grow it but the local government would only offer them a loan at 24% interest. Access to financial tools is key because when the women gain financial independence they choose to spend extra money on their children and their education. And more importantly with financial independence comes a change in the power dynamics and the place of women in society, especially a reduction in violence against women.
We drove away from these farmers basic mud brick housing, back along that brick red road, past the cotton fields, and the cobras they hid, and flew away into our land of bright light and empty spaces. Yet they remain, these women and girls, hoping. Not hoping to be given charity but to be awarded a choice. A choice we have the power to give.
Jess Berentson-Shaw is the founder of a social enterprise muka kids. muka kids makes certified fairtrade organic cotton children’s clothes with a pay it forward twist that provides microloans for women in India who are exploited throughout the garment production chain.