Gulshan, Project Lehar
Gulshan’s father died when she was 11 and her family, already struggling financially, found themselves in a crisis.
‘We were faced with a very difficult situation, because he was the sole earner in the family,’ Gulshan explains. ‘We had to drop out of school. There wasn’t enough food in the house… We had to look to the heavens for even our most basic needs.’
Like many girls and women in India, Gulshan started to take in stitching work to help pay the bills. By the time Gulshan joined Project Lehar, she’d been out of school for five years, spending all her time on stitching and domestic work at home.
Project Lehar is run by the Aga Khan Foundation with support from Prince’s Trust International. It runs vocational training, entrepreneurship and life skills courses for girls and young women from poor backgrounds in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh – the two poorest states in India. It also supports girls who left school early to complete their education.
India has the largest youth population in the world, but only one in seven young women has a paid job. Project Lehar Manager Kangkana Bordoloi describes how young women’s opportunities to find paid work are restricted by both practical and cultural barriers, especially among conservative communities where young women must seek permission to leave the house.
‘Access to formal employment is limited, not least because of mobility and transport issues,’ Kangkana explains. ‘Even when young women find jobs, it can be hard for them to keep them as they can’t afford the transport, or because family restrictions mean they can’t travel.’
Project Lehar is made up of many different, complementary modules which together enable girls and young women to increase their earning power, whether they work outside the home or not.
Some modules, like the stitching course, focus on improving young women’s technical skills. Although Gulshan had been working as a seamstress for several years before coming to the project, she hadn’t previously known how to create her own sewing patterns.
Recognising that many home-based tailors, like Gulshan, are effectively running their own business, the project also offers entrepreneurship sessions. These cover basic enterprise skills and financial literacy, meaning that Gulshan can now speak confidently about concepts such as pricing, budgeting, bookkeeping and time management, and apply them in her business. She can also draw on this knowledge to negotiate more confidently with clients.
‘[The sessions] have definitely improved my understanding. Now I know how to negotiate and communicate with the customers…. Before, I used to be afraid when confronted with a problem, but now I’ve overcome that fear.’
Alongside the vocational and entrepreneurship sessions, life skills classes enable girls to develop their confidence and soft skills. ‘I learned about self-awareness, creativity and assertive communication,’ Gulshan explains. ‘Before then I’d never had the courage to leave home much. But there I started to learn new things… I became more aware of what I was capable of.’
Price and payment negotiations can be particularly tough for young women brought up to be quiet and submissive, so Gulshan’s newfound assertiveness helps to increase her earnings. It has even enabled her to right a historic wrong.
When she was younger, Gulshan realised that one of her clients was underpaying her, so she quietly stopped working for him. But with the skills and confidence she’s gained from Project Lehar, Gulshan has found the courage to confront her former client and demand her money. Despite a heated argument and persistent refusals, Gulshan stood her ground and made her case. She was able to claim back over half the money she was owed.
The fourth and final piece of the project’s jigsaw of empowerment was in supporting Gulshan to restart her studies. She has now passed her 10th Standard exams, the equivalent of GCSEs, and is studying for 12th standard – the equivalent of A-levels.
‘I’d loved my studies but had to drop out because of our family situation,’ Gulshan explains. ‘This was an opportunity for me to get back into it. I could start again where I’d left off.’
Gulshan still works from home as a seamstress, but she’s also recently got a local job as a part-time sewing teacher too. Gulshan now balances her business, her job and her studies, helping provide for her family’s immediate needs while also building for their future. As well as supporting herself while she studies, Gulshan is now also funding her younger brother’s education. When she has time, she also helps out as a volunteer at Project Lehar.
‘I used to spend a lot of time sitting and staring out of the door, but not having the courage to go out of the house. Now I no longer hold back.’