By Izzy Harris
The Shakti social enterprise aims to empower female burn victims in Mumbai. Supported by Durham University’s Social Impact Fund, Sasha and cofounder Tessa travelled to India with the aim of setting up a project and established Shakti. The word Shakti means power and strength in Hindi and the group has stated that this reflects the resilience shown by the women they work with as they reshape their lives. In his role as project leader, Sasha spoke to profile about how the Shakti enterprise works, their success and future plans.
Sasha explained Shakti’s model, describing how they received donations of fabric originally from a factory owner in India but now from their corporate connection, babywear business JoJo Maman Bébé. They, in turn, donate this fabric to be used as part of a burn victim’s rehabilitation program in India’s only specific burns hospital in Mumbai. In the rehabilitation program, women are paid a wage to sew underwear, which is significant as often in India women are paid by garment. This way of receiving a wage ensures a more regular income for the women. This second stage of the model has the dual function of enabling women to learn the skill of sewing for employment once they have left the burns hospital. This is important as burns victims are often ostracised in Indian society. Furthermore, this stage of the model also allows the enterprise to support schoolgirls with sanitary hygiene.
This second function is important as across the world many girls are forced to take time off school or leave completely due to health issues connected to sanitary hygiene. On their website, Shakti quote a statistic suggesting that 23 million Indian girls drop out of school annually due to lack of menstrual hygiene management facilities, leading to the insufficient provision of education and a gender imbalance within society. The project works to limit this by giving local schoolgirls underwear for free as well as leaflets on the importance of sanitary hygiene.
I asked Sasha why they had been particularly interested in working with female burn victims in India and he stated, “you don’t need to do much research or visit the country to realise that it’s a significant problem”. Indeed, it is widely reported on in the media and India records around seven million burn cases a year.
He went on to explain that burn victims can become particularly helpless due to lack of state support and asserted that whether a victim of burning is burnt through an accident or domestic abuse it is “a defining moment in their life”. Sasha furthered that they choose to focus specifically on female victims as they were the clear majority, as well as to narrow down the focus of the social enterprise. Their approach to the issues was based on research from a trip to India.
Tessa and Sasha were in contact with the burns hospital before travelling to Mumbai and when there, they consulted them about the needs of female burns victims so that Shakti could best cater to them. Sasha described how they came up with their plan for the social enterprise based on the requests and issues that were illustrated to them on their visit. He stated, “we were lucky to have the factory owner and people in the burns hospital to direct us and go with us to schools and it all grew from there”.
The connections to factory owners are also an important component in the project. Sasha explained how they donated fabric at the beginning of the project when it began in October 2019, following the August visit. This allowed them to have a quick start up time. Furthermore, the factory owners are key to women’s employment following their involvement in Shakti. Sasha revealed this part of the project stating that after treatment they offer a range of opportunities to the women which include an “almost guaranteed” job in a factory. They have the opportunity to set up a cooperative in a group of three where they can work from home and for which the factory owner will donate a sewing machine. Alternatively, they can go back to their families and Shakti will still aim to provide them with a sewing machine.
Durham university supports the enterprise and Sasha described Shakti as being “under the Durham umbrella but with significant independence”. The University has funded the enterprise with £5,000 through the Social Impact Fund and the Careers Centre advised them when applying for grants. Sasha explained that they had been supported by a particularly helpful member of staff who had experience working in social enterprises before.
However, Durham University is not the only source of funding for the enterprise. Sasha explained that the group has fundraised too and that he found that the cause seemed to particularly resonate with students at the University. He went on to divulge that his personal goal for the enterprise was to have it fully funded by corporates. Shakti already has the support of some corporations including JoJo Maman Bébé and a luxury underwear brand, but this is not yet enough to keep the project fully funded. Sasha explained that during Covid-19 it has been particularly difficult to persuade corporates to get on board and give funding to Shakti as they have been hit by the by the pandemic themselves.
This has not been the only impact of Covid-19 on the project, Sasha described how they decided to make facemasks alongside the underwear because there has been a high infection rate in Mumbai. However, he also stated that the Indian government has been very efficient in the distribution of masks and so they will be limiting this step in the future. Sasha made clear that while Covid-19 has bought many things to a standstill, the issue of women being burned in India has not stopped: the hospital continues to admit more women and the project continues to run there.
He went on to say that the main issue caused by Covid-19 for Shakti is the distribution of the underwear as schools are not open; despite this, they are stockpiling and should eventually be able to distribute it to a larger group of schools.
The underwear distribution is a particularly significant achievement of the project: since they began, the women involved have made and distributed 17,000 pairs of underwear in multipacks of five, supporting over 8,500 schoolgirls. The statistics that they have achieved in the short time since they began operating are impressive as they have been able to empower, upskill and help 100 women find employment.
Although Shakti in its current form has already been successful in empowering and helping people, Sasha still has big plans for improvement in the future. He wants to see the enterprise fully funded by corporates so that the key job of the team working on the project is to communicate between the parties involved allowing nit to run smoothly. He also wants to expand the work across India as burning and ostracisation of burn victims is a national problem. Although the hospital that they work with in Mumbai is the only specific burns hospital in the country, he would like to expand in order to empower women in hospitals in other major cities.
Shakti is run by a team of six students who are responsible for the enterprise’s financing, advertising, social media, and communications. At the end of the academic year, Sasha will be graduating his degree and starting a job in July; his final goal is to ensure that he is able to recruit a team to keep the project running and improving into the future.
Speaking to Sasha it was clear that he is incredibly passionate about this social enterprise – and it was easy to see why. Shakti has an efficient model that works to utilise waste fabric sustainably, provide employability skills to women who have been ostracised from their societies and often their families, offers them future employment, and helps to improve sanitary hygiene for schoolgirls.
If you are interested in finding out more about Shakti you can visit their website at https:// www.shakti.org.uk/ or their Facebook page. Sasha also stated that Durham students should look out for their recruitment of new team members in the summer term if they are interested in getting involved in the enterprise.