Queen’s Garments

A Carmelite sisters’ sewing shop offers impoverished girls hope for a new life

story and photographs by Sean Sprague

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Inside a large house in the wooded hills of Kottayam, a district in the southern Indian state of Kerala, Sangeetha Pushpam crouched over a sewing machine, stitching fabric. She is 19, and has been working for four years to help support her family, which her father had abandoned.

After dropping out of school at 15, Sangeetha was hired by a cashew factory. She was getting paid practically nothing, however, and the factory conditions were taking their toll on her health. She suffered chest pains. Sangeetha wanted to move on and enrolled in a tailoring course. She did not have enough money to complete it, however, and she dropped out.

Fortunately, Sangeetha was invited to Kottayam to join Queen’s Garments, a sewing shop run by the Congregation of the Mother of Carmel, a religious community for women of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church. Founded in 1866, the community includes 6,000 sisters who run charities, schools and hospitals throughout India and abroad.

In a converted novitiate, Sangeetha works with 20 other young women from poor, often broken, families.

“Our mission is to promote plain living, high thinking and selfless service to eradicate poverty and suffering,” said Sister Suma Rose, who started Queen’s Garments in May 2004.

There is a special need for helping women in India, Sister Suma said. They are “undervalued, underrecognized, underrepresented and marginalized in society.” Sister Suma has just completed her Ph.D. at Assumption Women’s College in Changanacherry and published her dissertation, Polity, Society and Women in Kerala.

The working women live rent free at Queen’s Garments but must provide their own meals. The sisters arrange contracts for school uniforms, satchels and other items. After the production costs are covered, the payment is split among the workers based on how many items they produce. Each of the women opens a savings account, and each puts away about $100 a year, a significant amount in a country where the per capita income is about $700. As the program picks up, the women probably will earn more, the sisters said.

Much of the savings go toward dowries. Though officially illegal since 1961, the dowry system remains in practice – much like the caste system, which was also officially outlawed.

Throughout India, the majority of marriages are arranged, and a bride’s family is expected to pay a dowry to the groom’s. Even poor families can be expected to pay as much as $3,000. And in Kerala, which has the highest unemployment rate (almost half the population) of any Indian state, such payments can be especially burdensome. Families “unlucky” enough to have several daughters can be ruined by the cost of dowries.

“We are very much against the dowry system, but what to do?” said an exasperated Sister Josie Thalody.

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Tags: Sisters Poor/Poverty Women in India Carmelite Sisters