Sewing her way to success

“Before, people saw me as the poor woman who lost her leg. Now they see me as a business woman with a tailoring shop.”

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Arudselvi Jaicilin , 35 Sri Lanka Tailor Storyline

As we arrive at Arudselvi’s tailoring shop she steps forward to greet us, praying hands pressed together and an enormous grin from ear to ear.  Her smile is infectious.  This is a business woman on the rise, who can’t quite believe her own success. 

The early morning sun is already beating down and we stand for a moment to take in her newly built shop, with a fresh bright sign and cobalt blue doors thrown open to welcome customers. Dogs sleep undisturbed in the sun nearby, whilst scooters rush past on their way to work in nearby Kilinochchi, in the far north of Sri Lanka.  Keen to finish setting up the shop, Arudselvi’s husband Jaicilin hangs clothes out the front, whilst Arudselvi finishes teaching her new staff member how to cut the perfect line.  There are two machines lined up in the shop ready for action, one with a wheelchair behind it.

 

Arudselvi's husband helping set up shop

It quickly becomes apparent where the surprise at her own success comes from, once Arudselvi (35) starts to unravel her past.  Growing up during the 30-year civil war in Sri Lanka she had a tough childhood.  She explains: “I grew up in very poor conditions, it was my parents and us four girls.  When my father found labour work, we would eat enough food for that day only.”  Sadly, the pressure of having so many mouths to feed took its toll and her father took his own life.  As if this wasn’t enough to cope with for 17-year-old Arudselvi, tragedy struck again when she stepped on a landmine and lost her leg.

On leaving hospital, life finally took an upwards turn when her friend Jaicilin came to ask for her hand in marriage.  The couple decided to flee war-torn Sri Lanka and ended up in a refugee camp in India, where they would remain for almost eight years.  Arudselvi explains: “We were given a monthly ration, but it wasn’t enough to live on, so we decided to find work outside the refugee camp. But we did not have any skills or knowledge.”  It was then that Arudselvi joined a sewing course.

When they returned to Sri Lanka with their daughter Janani, who was born in the camp, Arudselvi was donated a sewing machine to kickstart her own business.  As sales started growing, she knew she needed to work faster.  Pumping a manual sewing machine pedal with a prosthetic leg was taking its toll and it was then that Chrysalis, CARE’s affiliate, bought her a new electric machine.  She also received vital business training where she learnt about profit and loss and that she could take advances on large orders.   She adds: “Before, I used to worry when my husband did not find work, but thanks to my income, I can now pay the tuition for my children and prepare healthy meals for them.”

When Arudselvi is asked about her husband, her face lights up and she says: “He is a gift from God”.  Jaicilin is not your typical Sri Lankan husband who would expect his wife to do all the housework, cooking and childcare.  He is the one who gets the children ready for school and makes the breakfast and lunch every day, so that Arudselvi can dedicate herself to her work.  When Arudselvi says that he is becoming a role model in their community, their eight year old son Anojan pipes up: “My Dad makes the best dhal curry!” Jaicilin has also participated in gender sensitisation training for men that CARE and Chrysalis provides, with the aim of involving them in the entrepreneurship of the women.

Arudselvi continues: “At the beginning, my husband didn’t think the sewing would be able to support our family finances, he saw it as just a hobby, but now he is fully supportive.  He helps by purchasing materials for the business, as well as marketing.”  Arudselvi smiles proudly when she tells us that she has also taught her husband to sew: “When I receive bulk orders, my husband helps me to sew the material after I have cut the pattern.” 

The start of the school year is especially busy when she receives bulk orders for uniforms.  She has recently completed an order of 168 uniforms, adding: “I feel so happy when I see children wearing my uniforms and when my daughter’s friends see me they shout ‘the tailor is coming!’”

Arudselvi in her workshop

Through her enterprise and training, Arudselvi’s self-confidence has grown: “Before, people saw me as the poor woman who lost her leg.  Now they see me as a business woman with a tailoring shop.  I used to limit myself to family and did not have contact with outsiders.  Now I have no fear of going out and getting things done on my own.  I also speak out against injustices and unfair treatment.” 

In 2019 Arudselvi officially registered her enterprise with the local authority and secured planning permission for her much desired shop, which she was able to build with her own savings and an H&M Foundation grant via Chrysalis.  Not long after having major surgery on her damaged leg, she opened the doors to her new premises. Business is now booming and her income has more than doubled.  She employs two local women and her ambition is to employ more, particularly war widows.  She adds: “Women should be viewed not as slaves or incapable, but as leaders.”

As well as training her new employees, she is also teaching her children to sew.  Her son, Anojan, now comes home from school and sits in the shop explaining to anyone that will listen that he is the shop owner!  He adds: “My favourite thing to do is sewing and one day I want to work for my mother.”

Arudselvi with her family 

It is clear that Arudselvi, who has experienced so much turmoil in her life, is finally getting the break she needs.  Through sheer determination and hard work she is not only making life better for her family, but her impact is beginning to reach into her community too. 

As we leave, the whole family comes to wave us off, smiling confidently in front of the new shop that is already changing their lives.   Her parting words for other women starting out: “Have self-confidence and never give up.  Women can be agents of change.”

 

Arudselvi's story, written by Emma Langbridge, appeared in Dutch National Newspaper Trouw for International Women's Day 2020