Embroidered with empowerment, from mother to mother
As a social enterprise, Shakti.ism is all about social impact, and we are particularly fond of other social enterprises in the business of women’s empowerment. By supporting other social businesses with a similar ethos to empower marginalised women, we aim to spread awareness about other brilliant social initiatives, and hopefully empower even more women!
This month, I’m sharing a guest post by my brilliant friend Laura, founder of a wonderful social enterprise called Khushi Kantha, that aims to empower women from marginalised communities in Bangladesh. I am honoured to know so many incredible change-makers that are tackling social problems with creative business solutions; people like Laura who want to make a lasting positive impact in the world. By the way, Khushi Kantha is launching their very first online auction, today, in honour of World Children’s Day. Read on to learn more about Khushi Kantha, and don’t forget to make your bid!
Embroidered with empowerment, from mother to mother
Khushi Kantha makes ultra-soft, ethically-produced, multi-purpose baby ‘kantha’ blankets with a vibrant ‘stand out’ factor.
Our mission is two-fold: (i) to create opportunities for mothers from the communities hosting the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh to provide for their children with dignity, and (ii) to contribute to the circular economy, promoting a shift from take-make-waste to reclaim-repurpose-reuse.
The idea was inspired by the birth of my half-British, half-Bangladeshi twin daughters Opi and Mahi, and my first-hand experience of working in the Rohingya refugee camps with Save the Children.
That’s why I’ve chosen World Children’s Day to launch Khushi Kantha’s first, limited-edition collection of blankets through an online auction. The revenue we generate will enable me to set up production in Bangladesh as soon as it’s safe to do so.
To mark this exciting step, I’d like to tell you about my journey so far. Thanks so much to Shakti.ism for the opportunity to share the story of how I’m trying my turn my social enterprise vision into reality, with the help of Khushi Kantha’s growing community of incredible volunteers and pro-bono supporters.
It has been brilliant to connect with Jitna and chat about juggling social entrepreneurship with raising young daughters. She’s been incredibly generous in sharing her experience and network, and we’re having some exciting conversations about how we can support each others’ initiatives locally and create more opportunities for women in Bangladesh to embrace their cultural heritage and use their existing talents to empower themselves and their families.
I spent the first half of my pregnancy in the coastal town of Cox’s Bazar in South-Eastern Bangladesh. Once best-known for having the longest unbroken stretch of beach in the world, it is now infamous for another reason.
Despite being one of the poorest parts of a very poor country, the local population have welcomed nearly 1 million Rohingya men, women and children, who have fled across the border from Myanmar to escape human rights atrocities.
While humanitarian agencies focus on providing support for the Rohingya refugees, the host community are struggling with falling wage rates, depleted natural resources, crippling inflation, and other devastating impacts on their already precarious incomes.
With child malnutrition rates similar among the refugees and the local people, I regularly witnessed destitute mothers from the areas surrounding the refugee camps begging for some of the food aid provided to the Rohingya population, only to be turned away.
I came home to London just over 20 weeks pregnant, instilled with a strong sense of wanting to do something to help the mothers I had seen experiencing such desperation. But wasn’t sure how to go about it effectively…..
The birth of an idea
When my daughters were born, they were gifted a collection of more than twenty traditional ‘kantha’ blankets, lovingly created by my Bangladeshi mother- and sister-in law, with help from the wider community.
I was a bit overwhelmed to receive so many, and wondered what we were going to do with them all!
However, I soon realised their numerous uses: from swaddling the girls as tiny newborns, to functioning as Moses baskets, cot sheet toppers, pram liners, mini playmats, sunshades…and even makeshift changing mats when the need arose while out and about!
They washed really well and dried quickly – and their bright colours and traditional ‘kantha’ stitching made them really stand out, and they drew compliments wherever we went.
I quickly realised there could be a market for them!
I first moved to Bangladesh over a decade ago, to work on a project that helped extremely poor women get their families out of poverty by providing them with the means to earn a small income. I fell in love with the country and its people, and I’ve lived there on and off ever since.
Inspired by the incredible social entrepreneurs I’ve encountered through my personal and professional adventures all over Bangladesh, it’s been a long-standing dream of mine to use everything I’ve experienced and learned to start my own initiative, partnering directly with women whose position I could so easily be in if things were different.
Reworking the ‘kantha’ tradition
‘Kantha’ (meaning “stitched cloth”) refers to both the tradition of mothers crafting blankets for their babies by stitching together their old saris, and the embroidery stitch that is applied over the top. It can also simply mean ‘blanket’. ‘Khushi’ is the Bengali term for ‘happy‘.
‘Khushi Kantha‘ therefore means ‘Happy Blanket’.
I’ve spent the past year having hundreds of conversations with ethically-minded mums and immersing myself in the world of sustainable textiles. I quickly realised the potential issues associated with using recycled saris for baby products.
So Khushi Kantha is reworking the ‘kantha’ technique, reserving the repurposed saris for the inside layers, and using fresh cotton for the outside of the blankets, to which we apply the traditional ‘kantha‘ embroidery stitch.
In line with the environmental sustainability aspect of our mission, I’m aiming to source deadstock fabric for this purpose.
Bangladesh is famous for its garments industry. Lots of fabric sadly ends up getting wasted at various stages of the supply chain. This is a particular challenge the industry is facing right now, as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
I want to collaborate with like-minded companies to rescue this fabric from landfill – and I’m currently having some exciting discussions with big-name brands who are keen to get involved!
I want the words ‘Made in Bangladesh’ to be a statement of pride and happiness. Khushi Kantha’s exquisitely hand-crafted products do not compromise on quality – we refuse to rely on ‘pity purchases’.
Changing the next chapter in the story
Khushi Kantha will train mothers from the communities hosting the Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh to use their existing ‘kantha’ embroidery skills to create products that are marketable in the UK and other high-income countries. We’ll be creating opportunities for the mothers we partner with to draw on their cultural heritage and generate sustainable incomes, enabling them to provide for their children with dignity in a way that is compatible with household and childcare responsibilities and conservative cultural norms. Living and working in Bangladesh over the past thirteen years has taught me that well-intentioned outsiders can sometimes inadvertently make life harder for vulnerable women by trying to do things that can sound like a brilliant idea ‘on paper’, but upset local dynamics in reality.
It’s really important to me that my initiative is able to create sustainable change in the communities I will partner with – and that means taking things one step at a time and learning as we go. Our ultimate goal is to create positive multiplier effects across the communities we’ll be working in, and break the inter-generational transfer of poverty, and my long-term vision involves creating a whole range of kantha-based baby products, and building social cohesion in the communities we work with by extending our partnerships to include Rohingya mothers.
But we’re starting with baby steps.
I was planning to head over to Bangladesh in May, to introduce my daughters to their Bangladeshi family members, and establish production.
Then Covid-19 happened.
I knew I had to come up with another way to create a first batch of blankets asap, in order to confirm market demand before pouring more of my time, energy and heart into turning my social enterprise dream into reality….if no-one is interested in buying the blankets, Khushi Kantha won’t be changing anyone’s lives for the better!
So I turned to my local community, teaming up with some of the leading members of the South London Scrubbers – an incredible group of volunteers who have been making PPE for NHS frontline staff. Inspired by my vision of using the collaborative power of a global community of mothers to build better futures for the next generation, they volunteered to stitch the first set of blankets.
“When I saw what the people of Bangladesh were doing for the refugees of Myanmar, I was very touched. When you have so little yourself, but are prepared to share that with someone who has nothing, that is a truly inspirational quality. In comparison, I have so much, and I wanted to give something. I loved the idea of the women sewing a gift to pass down to their children. And quite by chance, the simple joy of hand sewing came at a time after I had spent many hours at my sewing machine. I think I can safely say I enjoyed sewing every stitch of every line and swirl in the beautiful design. I loved being part of the Khushi Kantha group, and wish them every success!”
– Gill Howe, Volunteer stitcher
Given the challenges Covid-19 has posed for our supply chain, our debut collection is created from slightly different materials than we will ultimately be using.
The inside layers are made from a combination of vintage cotton saris from Bangladesh and cotton muslin from my local South Asian market that is typically used by Sikh men for turbans and Muslim women for hijabs, as recommended by local ‘kantha’ expert Surjeet Husain – it’s what she uses when she teaches ‘kantha’ workshops at the V&A.
Then for the outside layers we’ve used surplus cotton fabric from John Lewis (originally donated to the South London Scrubbers and kindly passed onto us, as it proved surplus to their requirements) and purchased cotton fabric from Higgs and Higgs, Wimbledon Sewing Machines and myfabrics.co.uk, as we weren’t able to secure enough deadstock within the timeframe we needed it by.
All the fabric has been washed multiple times at 60 degrees to ensure colour fastness and hygiene standards.
Bid for a blanket!
If you’ve made it this far, thanks so much for your interest in learning about what Khushi Kantha is trying to do, and why – please click here if you’d like to bid for the chance to own one of our very first blankets.
The revenue raised will allow us to set up full-scale production in Bangladesh as soon as it’s safe to do so. All mothers deserve the best for their children. By bidding for one of our blankets and becoming part of the Khushi Kantha community, you can help them provide it.
Thanks so much again to Shakti.ism for this opportunity, which is hopefully the first of many collaborations to promote the ‘kantha’ tradition, raise awareness of the circular economy, and create opportunities for other mothers to provide for their children with dignity.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Laura is setting up Khushi Kantha in her ‘spare time’, alongside her ‘day job’ helping organisations who are doing brilliant things to support mothers and babies in the UK and around the world measure, communicate and enhance their impacts, and her ‘24/7 job’ as the mother of one year-old, half-British, half-Bangladeshi twin daughters Opi and Mahi. She has over a decade’s experience in the international development and humanitarian sectors. Her work with organisations like Save the Children, the British Red Cross and War Child UK has taken her to over twenty countries, from Sierra Leone to Mongolia, and Iraq to Paraguay…but Bangladesh remains her favourite place in the world!