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Sisterhoood of success: On women's day, these entrepreneurs share their stories of grit, gratitude and gumption

Within a few minutes, the women defuse the air of gloom, begin pulling each other’s legs, indulge in banter and break into laughter.

Published: 08th March 2021 01:05 AM  |   Last Updated: 08th March 2021 09:12 AM   |  A+A-

Entrepreneurship and the intervention of such cooperatives have over the years been enabling women empowerment and the work of ICNW has redefined democratic processes. ( Photo | Ashwin Prasath, EPS ​)

Entrepreneurship and the intervention of such cooperatives have over the years been enabling women empowerment and the work of ICNW has redefined democratic processes. ( Photo | Ashwin Prasath, EPS ​)

Express News Service

CHENNAI: Azhadhe, Chandra. We are in this together,” tells 48-year-old Chandira Isakivel, consoling a teary-eyed Chandra Mani, as she recalls her past or deals. Both small-time entrepreneurs, the duo have been part of the Working Women’s Forum and the Indian Cooperative Network for Women (ICNW) for decades. Lakshmi Narayanaswamy, a sexagenarian, joins in. She takes a deep breath and puts her hand around Chandra. Exuding motherly warmth, she says, “Naanga pakadhe kashtam illa.

But, we have emerged stronger every time. During times of distress, all we needed was some support and we serendipitously received it through ICNW. We (women from the group) are now there not just for one another but also for those beyond the group treading a similar path. We never let anyone fall or feel helpless. Isn’t that sisterhood?” asks the resident of TP Chatram, Kilpauk.

Within a few minutes, the women defuse the air of gloom, begin pulling each other’s legs, indulge in banter and break into laughter. As their unbridled cackles fill the Forum’s auditorium, Chandra, now with a smile on her face, says, “This is a slice of our life. A mixed bag of moments both good and bad. We are proud of how far we’ve come.” The 50-something has been running a Xerox-photo-lamination- cum-snacks shop near Puliyanthoppu’s RTO office for over two decades.

“Being a women entrepreneur has not been an easy journey. Daily, I have to deal with people from all walks of life. Some step into the shop with wrong intentions and simply to disrupt your day, just because of your gender. But, I face them head-on,” says Chandra, who was barely 18 years when she got married and moved from Cheyyur to Chennai.

“To integrate into a joint family of 13 and work day and night to care for them was hard. When the earnings of my husband were not enough to care for our four children, I decided to join as a daily-wage worker in a local Xerox shop. In 1989, I learned about this Forum and took a loan of Rs 400. I first bought a second-hand Xerox machine and then rented a shop to start my own business. Now, all my children are not only well-educated but are also good human beings. They help anyone in need; that should be one’s intrinsic nature. No one should suffer as we did.”

Winning in life

Chandra, Chandira and Lakshmi were recently honoured by the Working Women’s Forum and ICNW as ‘COVID-19 Warriors and Heroines’ in recognition of their perseverance in managing to continue their entrepreneurial efforts even amid the pandemic. “It was a recognition of our resilience. I have never received any awards in my life and this made me so happy. My children were very proud of me. Idhu podhum enaku,” tells Lakshmi, who after the passing of her husband, had to fend for her five children.

“I got married when I was 15. My husband was an alcoholic and life was hard. After his passing, to make ends meet, I started an idli business. Five years after running the shop by procuring loans with high interest from private lenders, I was introduced to ICNW. I took a loan of `200 from them and my life has changed ever since. I have expanded my old business and started a new sari business, educated and have gotten all my children married, and have my own house too,” she beams.

Now, Lakshmi spends her days managing the business while also finding ways to unwind. “I have never stepped into a school. It was only after I came to ICNW did I learn to sign my name. I felt empowered. Similarly, over time, I also realised the importance of self-care. It’s not enough if you keep working hard but you need to know to reap its benefits too. I spend my leisure time watching TV; the National Geographic channel is one of my favourites! I enjoy listening to MGR and SP Balasubrahmanyam’s songs,” she grins and starts singing, Kannai nambaadhae, Unnai yemaatrum from Ninaithadhai Mudippavan.

“In my life, I have been cheated financially by many and I have learned to not trust people immediately. However, when I am here with my sisters, I know I am safe and protected,” she says, smiling at Chandra and Chandira. Chandira nods her head in agreement. When the mother of five moved to Chennai from Thirunelveli in the 2000s, she was at the receiving end of harassment. “House owners refused to rent us a place because we had five children. When I shared my dream of providing my children with a good education, I was mocked and asked to send them to daily- wage jobs.

During such times, I used to feel lost,” she recalls. But, this was until she came under the wing of ICNW. “With a loan amount of Rs 2,500, I started a sari business. That coupled with my husband’s income, I educated all my children. They are all happy now. What’s success and fulfilment without happiness? After witnessing a lack of empathy first hand, I step in if there is a problem for anyone in our area. Several civic issues have been solved in the locality because of my intervention. I have not only become financially- independent but have also fostered the strength to help others,” she smiles.

Living the dream

Entrepreneurship and the intervention of such cooperatives have over the years been enabling women empowerment and the work of ICNW has, in many ways, redefined democratic processes and been a platform to reimagine gender relations in the society. The trio, who over the decades put the wellbeing of their family first, is now on the path of finding ways to live the years that were lost in fighting abusive relationships, financial falls and gendered hierarchies.

“I wanted to become a police officer. But I studied only till class 10. While I cannot become one now, I want to spend my life working for the welfare of people,” shares Chandira. Lakshmi, who was never presented with the opportunity to go to school is hoping to enrol in a senior education programme. “My eye-sight has deteriorated over time. If my health permits, I would love to study,” she tells.

Ask Chandra what her aspirations are and she quickly says, “To treat my future daughter-in-law as my daughter. It might sound simple but women empowerment and feminism starts at our own house. Only when you treat your women as equals will it spread to the society. I want to shower her with the love, care and respect that I didn’t receive in my formative years. I want my actions to be a new dawn for the next generation of women.”



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