Featured image: Refugee women creating handmade artefacts as part of the small livelihoods project by Hamsa Vijayaraghavan
“We are all refugees here, our lives in this country are difficult. When we come out of our homes to work at the centre, we sit and laugh and work together, and learn from each other…it makes our troubles lighter”.
In India, the world’s largest democracy, a country that has prided itself on its warm treatment of its guests, refugees continue to be persona non grata. In the absence of a specific law that regulates asylum, they are simply “illegal aliens” with no legal status or socio-economic rights. Women make up over half of the total refugee population and are even more vulnerable within this group; they are often traumatized by past experiences of sexual violence and conflict during transit. It is often only much later that they find the words to speak about their past, if at all. In the aftermath of the global pandemic that has increased the burdens of isolation, increased the risk of exposure to sexual and gender-based violence, and reduced access to support networks and services, these women are now more vulnerable than ever.
The most immediate challenge for refugee women is that of providing for their families. For many of these women, they find themselves to be in a position of caretaker as well as provider for the first time. Many arrive in India as single heads of families, having been forced to flee their countries after the death or disappearance of male family members. The factors that drive sexual exploitation – engendered patriarchal norms, poverty, low literacy, lack of human rights protections, and personal history of gender-based violence – are all amplified for refugee women. There have been recorded instances of refugee women and girls forced into survival sex in the country of asylum due to the almost total unavailability of work avenues for them.
Against this backdrop, the opportunity to find a safe place where they can earn a decent living is an almost unachievable dream for these women. Most of these women, raised in conflict-ridden countries, have not had the opportunity to go outside the house to earn the formal qualifications that almost all employers in India ask for, nor can they demonstrate the work experience that might help them make up for lack of a degree nor the language skills to articulate their suitability for available jobs. However, at my organisation, Migration and Asylum Project, we have the opportunity, as legal advisors, to interact closely with them; we see that these are women who have survived despite the odds, and need but a small push in the right direction to thrive.
In the course of our work, we have spoken to over 2000 survivors of gender-based violence, women who have risen above their trauma and are now raising their families in a foreign land that offers so little by way of support, driven by nothing more than sheer determination to ensure that their future children have better opportunities than they were given.
We hope to encourage this spirit with a very small livelihoods project that we run in collaboration with Silaiwali, a local social enterprise that employs refugee women as artisans to produce high-quality handmade artefacts out of waste fabric sourced from clothing manufacturers.
Our objective simply is to provide a healing space for the women, a place that they can come to for safety and comfort, while also ensuring that they can engage their own creativity and strengths to acquire the skills and earnings that they need to live with dignity and to rebuild their lives, one stitch at a time. Many of these women already come with skills in traditional crafts such as embroidery, handed down from previous generations. At Silaiwali, they get to use their talent to provide for their families and also receive training to enhance ancillary skills such as tailoring, business and management.
Needless to say, most are thankful to step out of their homes – often cramped spaces with too many people and too few resources – and into a space where they are amongst friendly faces that know what it takes for them to show up and carry on. There are also many empirical studies that suggest a mindfulness practice such as embroidery can have a therapeutic effect on the mind and body, and is effective in reducing the stress, anxiety and depression induced by severe trauma.
This project, small in scale and huge in impact, has been no less gratifying for us than for the artisans. It has taught us that, while we tend to speak in numbers about refugees, there is an individual story of resilience – made up in many words, in many languages – behind each one. The satisfaction provided by seeing a finished product emerge from this exercise is definitely worth every bit of time and effort we put into ensuring we can all keep at it, artisans, program staff and funders alike.
Hamsa Vijayaraghavan completed her law degree from India and her Masters from the University of Rouen, France. She has nearly 2 years of work experience with the UNHCR field office in India. Hamsa has previously worked with Bail for Immigration Detainees and with Refugee and Migrant Justice, both in London. She has also worked as a consultant with the Ministry of Women and Child Development of the Government of India and UNICEF on drafting child protection laws. Hamsa is currently the Chief Operating Officer at Migration and Asylum Project, India’s first law centre dedicated to the study of forced migration issues, where she manages all the refugee legal assistance programmes including those for legal representation in the UNHCR asylum project. She has expertise in dealing with claims involving displaced women and children.