LED BY WOMEN
When she created Chhoti Si Asha, Gagan Chawla empowered those who needed it most.
The way Gagan Chawla tells it, Chhoti Si Asha just kind of…happened. After working as a computer engineer in the United States, she returned to India in 2005 and began what she calls a “journey.” “My intention was to connect with the grass roots and accept whatever came my way,” says Chawla. What came her way were women from marginalized communities, whom she helped capitalize on their craft-making talents to earn a living. Today, Chhoti Si Asha is a volunteer-driven non-profit that incorporates a livliehood center for women to make crafts, an after-school program for the community’s children, and a micro-loan program managed by women members of the Chhoti Si Asha community. Below, Chawla reflects on her journey.
Growing up, were you passionate about handmade goods?
I never had a deep interest in craft, but then I started visiting the houses of these women who had a strong desire to earn a living in their spare time. They always thought that they didn’t know anything, but I realized how talented they all were and how, with a bit of upskilling and training, they could make a small living by tapping into that talent.
How do you collaborate with the makers?
I work with these women artisans to design and develop products, keeping in focus their skill levels, limitations and market needs, all at the same time. I love it when a product gets created collaboratively and when, at the end of it, we don’t even know who designed it. Most of Chhoti Si Asha products are created very spontaneously along with the artisans.
Tell us how Chhoti Si Ashi impacts the artisans in its community.
The journey of a woman into an artisan, it is so gradual that sometimes you can miss it. But at the same time, it’s so visible in her demeanor, in her work and in the way she interacts with the outside world. I love to see women supporting women, teaching other women and being there for each other.
What are the biggest challenges you face as a leader? And if you’ve overcome any of them, how?
The initial hurdle was to win the trust of the community and to encourage the women to come out. Once they came out, then it was to encourage them to speak out. We worked with an initial cluster of stitching women and did repeated circle times with them where we would talk for hours and encourage them to express themselves openly and to support each other. Now they have collectively started a small rudimentary banking system for themselves where they pool money and lend it out to each other. Once the core group got established, newer groups were easier to form and train as the original group could lead by example..
How has this affected their lives outside of Chhoti Si Asha?
Initially, a lot of women faced resistance from their community, husbands and family—but they showed resilience and kept on going. Today I see so much confidence in them, and respect for them in their family and community. It’s difficult to believe that these are the same timid women who would not speak up when spoken to!
What do you think triggered that change?
Economic empowerment has empowered them to speak for themselves. Also, the space of CSA has provided them that confidence—it is because this is where they don’t have to be somebody’s wife, or mother or daughter. They are just who they are and we all accept each other like that. This gives them confidence and happiness, and that gets radiated back home.