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A story from India. When sewing equals freedom.

Updated: Apr 27, 2020

I want to share this story with you because you are in it. Your involvement with Shared Threads ties you directly with every woman we connect with. I want you to see how your partnership with Shared Threads directly impacts the women in this story. The story begins 6 months into starting Shared Threads. Do you remember when we were asked to supply 200 packs to a women’s prison in India? I remember it well because I thought it was impossible. I almost said no. But the dreamer in me said yes, let’s try. So I asked, and this generous , hardworking Shared Threads family stepped up to the challenge. You donated cloth and towels and time and energy and money and pants! You sewed away furiously in groups and at home. You got family and friends involved and even students in schools. You overwhelmed me as always with your passion to serve these women who find themselves in such a bleak and desperate situation. And you did it! You made and sent me enough pads and holders and bags to send 200 packs.

That Christmas 2018, 200 women who live in the grimmest of conditions received a beautiful handmade bag with pants and pads and a little note handwritten by my daughter and her friend. You helped give these women such a valuable gift and a sense of dignity that Christmas. Thank you did not seem enough to say.

They were distributed to these women through a small charity who work within the prison, training the women in making crafts which they sell for them to raise enough money for a fair trial.

The following spring 2019, our family decided to fund our own trip to India where I would get the chance to visit the girls we are supporting there. The prison charity asked me if I would visit the prison where we had sent our gift, and spend some time teaching the women how to make the cloth pads, so that they could make them for other women. Such an incredible invitation.

Apparently it is extremely rare to allow visitors, particularly foreign ones, into an Indian prison, but the charity felt that they had built up a good enough relationship within the prison over time, that it just might be possible.

We traveled 6 hours to get there so I was already a bundle of nerves from Indian roads and traffic when we arrived.

The guards made us wait a couple of hours in the hot, hot, midday sun, which I was told was a way of quietly communicating authority. It was still unclear whether they would let me in. At one point a bus load of prisoners from the men’s prison were unloaded beside us. All in chains. My coworker whispered in my ear that she had watched a prisoner kill another right here last week.

When they finally let us through the front door, they took away our phones, passports and carefully counted our scissors - a suicide risk. We were escorted to the chief prison officers quarters. He didn’t question us much about our work, but was pretty determined that we drink up all the coffee and only gave us permission to enter the prison when my coworker showed him the gifts she had brought for him. We were then allowed through the inner walls to the women’s prison.

I was allowed a little tour to begin with. I was shown a room about the same size as my kitchen back home, where 27 women slept. There were 27 hooks on the wall where the women hung a plastic bag of their belongings. Some women had nothing to hang up. As we left the room, I was shown a hole on the floor in one corner, the toilet.

The women were gathered together to meet me in a central outdoor courtyard with a canopy to shelter us from the hot sun. It was about 37 degrees and humid.

I’m not sure what I was expecting. I think I was worried that the women might not understand my visit, might criticise my presence there, but I never had a warmer welcome. From their faces, I could tell they appreciated my being there and that they were keen to learn. One of the inmates translated as I taught the women. They learned fast and worked even faster. They stitched by hand at incredible speed with tiny, beautiful, perfect stitches.

I love how our Shared Threads workshops in N. Ireland create space for conversation, an opportunity to listen, share stories and be listened to. As we worked here, I heard some of their stories. The women dressed in white are there for life. The rest have a shorter sentence or no sentence at all, but had remained in prison for years awaiting a trial. Without a trial there is no determination of innocence or guilt. For many of them, when they were accused of their crime, their families and community disowned them, due to the shame. These women had no money or support, but this project gave them hope.

They had learnt how to sew and the products they made were sold outside the prison and enabled them to save a little money. Money that they saved to pay for their trial, which costs roughly £10. The criminal justice process is very slow here because there are not enough judges or courts and for many, a lawyer is too expensive anyway. Many women spend years in prison before being proved innocent and released.

When released however, they would find themselves alone, still ostracized by their family, still rejected by their communities and extremely poor. This project however provides them with a skill, a way to earn money, something to sell at markets.

For so many women in India, having something to sell at market or by the side of the road is vital.

Stitching has given these women options, a second chance, a means to survive, a path to freedom.

Help us to continue connecting with the stories of women, by donating your time or skills or money. Together we can create opportunities for women to thrive with dignity.

Thank you for being a part of the Shared Threads story. A story of how sewing can change lives. A story of the threads that connect us all.

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