Sabita Maharjan is a fighter. Six years ago, she’d taken a bold decision. She left her husband, a heavy drinker and drug addict at the time, because she could not take the violence and the humiliation she was subjected to anymore. Her husband had not earned anything for a long time, and for years, her parents-in-law had barred her from leaving the house to make some money herself. “That’s no life,” she’d thought at the time, before setting out to change things. Today, Sabita is a successful businesswoman with her own corporation, the Kirtipur Hosiery Industries (KHI). She employs more than 170 women from Kirtipur who knit, sew and weave for her, most of them housewives who work from the comfort of their own homes. Last year, her company had an annual turnover of more than Rs 1.9 million. That’s an impressive number for a woman who—only six years ago—was a victim of domestic violence, trapped in an environment that was anything but supportive of her plans.
First taste of independence
Sabita’s success story started some 17 years ago in Panga, her hometown. She was 16 at the time and wanted to learn the art of knitting. She’d applied for a training programme open to women of at least 18 years of age. “I had to cheat a little bit,” Sabita says with a smile. “But, anyway, I think it was well worth it.” Soon after she finished the programme, Sabita started to train other women in her village. Together with her trainees, she knitted and sewed for people on request and earned a little income. “I chose this field of work because it’s something every woman, even the ones without any education, can learn and earn a living on,” Sabita says. “It is the ideal business to empower Nepali women.” However, the ordeals she went through during the early years of her marriage led her to believe that knitting and sewing alone was not going to give women like herself what they needed to get out of their misery. Sabita started a literacy programme in Panga, gathered women on a regular basis and talked to them about domestic violence and women’s rights.
Four years ago, Sabita stepped up her game and—with a Rs 50,000 loan and some help from the Business Service Centre for Women Empowerment—founded KHI. Soon after, she moved her business into the bustling city of Kirtipur. And ever since, Sabita has been busy meeting customers, designing new products, teaching her employees how to knit and sew and working for the cause of Kirtipur’s women. Together with her coworkers, Sabita delivers garments and knitwear to customers like Kakani Footwear, the Commerce and Technical School in Asta Mangal, Hub Creation and various local schools.
Most of her employees are housewives or single women who had never had the chance to go beyond their four walls to work and make their own money before starting at KHI. “It feels great to see that business is picking up and that these women feel good about themselves and about what they do. It’s a good feeling to know that I was able to overcome my problems,” Sabita says. “Now, I want to help others to take that same path, to help them have the courage to be independent and strong.”
Employing and empowering
Susila Maharjan is one of those women Sabita has been able to help a great deal. She has worked together with Sabita for more than six years. A former housewife, Susila now enjoys her newly gained independence. “If I want to buy something, I don’t have to bow to my husband anymore. I just get it,” she says. That’s exactly the kind of statement Sabita would like to hear from women all over the country. “Women have to raise their voice and work together if they want to overcome the existing misconceptions about them,” Sabita says. “The enthusiasm and the skill are there. Now we’re giving these women an opportunity to break out of their homes and to prove that they can be successful as individuals.” Sabita still uses a considerable chunk of her revenue to fund literacy programmes for women around Kirtipur. Additionally, she has a team of 10 women who go around the municipality every week and organise clean-up campaigns. They collect trash and talk to locals about sustainable housekeeping. KHI itself recycles all the waste it produces, turning waste wool, cotton and other raw materials into colourful dolls and cushy pillows.
For all her efforts and the impact she has had on women’s lives all around Kirtipur, Sabita Maharjan was awarded the Surya Nepal Asha Social Entrepreneurship Award in 2011. When she won the award, sponsored by the Nepali NGO Change Fusion, Sabita’s work was recognised nationwide. One of the people who learned about her efforts at the time was the director of Sherpa Adventure Gear. “He gave me a call, sent me a couple of patterns to work on as a test run and was obviously very satisfied with our samples,” Sabita says. Today, Sherpa is one of her biggest clients. She recently took a big loan and bought some new sewing machines to handle the 1,000 sweaters and caps that Sherpa has commissioned recently, and her employees will have their hands full over the next couple of weeks. And one of them is her husband. Three years ago, Sabita and her husband moved back together. Sabita had sent him to a rehab centre to deal with his addiction. He still drinks from time to time, but things have changed. He seems happy sitting behind his sewing machine. He has a structured workday and a regular income, thanks to his successful boss—his wife—who was kind enough to give him a second chance.
Schumacher is a journalist based in Zurich, Switzerland. He currently interns at the Post.