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MarketPlace sewing dreams and financial security

2 years ago / by ABHIJIT MASIH
An artisan at her work for marketplace
An artisan at her work

The inception of MarketPlace: Handwork of India was a result of a desire to help three low-income women in Mumbai, India. 

Sisters Pushpika Freitas and Lalita Monteiro founded the nonprofit to teach women to sew patchwork quilts by hand, work they could do at home without having to pay for childcare or equipment. This small experiment attracted other women in the neighborhood who needed to support their families but faced obstacles like poverty, lack of education, or cultural and religious restrictions.

Pushpika Freitas- President - MarketPlace Handwork of India
Pushpika Freitas- President – MarketPlace Handwork of India

What began with three women in 1980 spread to 75 by 1983 and the organization was incorporated as a not-for-profit in Illinois by the end of 1986. Market Place put out their first printed catalog for women’s apparel and home décor in 1990, by which time they worked with more than a few hundred artisans in India. Currently, MarketPlace works with over 400 artisans organized into 11 cooperatives. This helps these artisans to achieve meaningful and sustainable self-sufficiency and empowerment by owning and running their own cooperatives.

Pushpika Freitas was motivated early in her childhood, growing up in a family of six girls. Regardless of the situation at home, her parents firmly believed in educating women. 

“I did my bachelor’s in social work in Mumbai,” says Freitas “And then I came to the U.S. to do my masters, but I was very committed to working in India.” So she headed back and worked alongside her mother in her organization involved in the treatment of leprosy. Soon after, she received funding to start a leprosy rehabilitation center, which exposed her to life in the slums of Mumbai. She realized how fortunate she was. 

Freitas recalls, “A lot of the women in the slums could not find jobs, because they were uneducated … The oldest girl in the family was taken out of school to look after the other siblings so that the mother could work.”

Freitas wanted to empower them, and so, without any business background, armed only with her degree, she decided to make a marketable product. On trips to the U.S. to visit family, Freitas sold clothes these women had made, and soon realized there was a market for them in America.

“Earning a living and putting food on the table was the first step towards empowering these women,” Freitas said. “We concentrated on that and were really trying to work with women who did not have any options. I have just been an instrument providing small opportunities, and the women taking the ball and running with it. And they have, right from the beginning.”

Beyond self-reliance, these women wanted their children educated. Frietas’ motto was “dignity and not charity.”

Pushpika Freitas (far-center) addressing a group of artisans in Mumbai
Pushpika Freitas (far-center) addressing a group of artisans in Mumbai

She explains: “From the very beginning, we did not have any charitable programs. As an organization, we were telling the women that they have to be independent, and not dependent on charity … Hence, though we are a nonprofit, we basically do not depend on donations.”

The children of these women are reaping the benefits of the drive Freitas initiated. Some of them hold jobs in banking, sales… One of them has a son son pursuing medicine, another a daughter in dental school. Their lives are forever altered.

For Frietas, the president of MarketPlace India, one story stands out.

“This was a little while ago,” she says. “One of these women came to me and said that her husband’s family wants to get her 14-year-old daughter married. The wife and the husband did not definitely want it, but the husband was hesitant to tell this to his family. So he asked his wife, to convince his parents. He thought she would know how to talk, because she attended meetings at the co-operative … Not only could this woman do that, but that her husband recognized the fact that she could do that.”

A distinctive feature of the MarketPlace India products is the hand embroidery, quite different the repetitive designs of the mainstream apparel industry, with its fast, but machine-made, products.

Freitas describes MarketPlace as a fair trade, non-profit organization that empowers women in India to break the cycle of poverty. 

A model wearing Bindal jacket and Kavya pants, available at MarketPlace

What began as a small step of social work to help three women has become a successful business that has impacted not just hundreds of women in the co-operative, but also their families and their future generations.

But it all began with that young girl more than 40 years ago.