Yogita Lapya Jadhav, like every other girl in Ashte village, was pressured to leave school after completing 8th grade.
“It’s time for you to find a suitor and move in with his family” her mother chided. “Stop wasting your time before you’re too old.”
Yogita belongs to the Kokanas – a tribal group found on the border of Maharashtra and Gujarat states in western India.
At 17, all of her friends were getting married off and moving in with their husband’s family in neighboring villages. Yogita stood alone and refused to do the same, knowing she’d be forced to bear children immediately, lose her independence as her in laws would control her, and bear many additional domestic responsibilities.
Her parents grew anxious at her resistance. “Why can’t you be more like your friends?”
“No!” she said. “You’ll see. I’m going to have my own house one day. My husband is going to come marry me and live with me, independently.”
Everyone laughed at her. The thought of a woman, especially one her age, without advanced education, affording her own house in Ashte was unheard of and ridiculous. She became the subject of many jokes and village gossip.
But Yogita was undeterred. She found a job going from house to house in the village, assisting women with their cooking. It was the same job her father had been doing – for nearly 30 years. She managed to bring in around $2 a day, but this wasn’t nearly enough to buy a house. After all, her father was still paying off debt he owed on their family home.
Yogita resented being bossed around by the women of the village. She dreamt of running her own business.
So, a year into her cooking job, she quit. She had saved 7000 Indian rupees (around $104). With her savings she bought a used, foot-operated sewing machine. Each morning she walked around her village, hawking her sewing services from house to house. Each evening she sat in her family home, hunched over her machine, stitching women’s blouses.
In 2012, Yogita did something no other woman in her village has ever done: she took on a loan of 60,000 rupees from the bank. With the money, she built a home out of dry stick, cow dung and mud. Bringing her old sewing machine inside and slinging up a hand-painted sign on the door ‘Yogita’s Best Sewing”, she started her own independent sewing business.
With time, word spread about the quality and speed of her blouses, causing many new orders to come her way. She worked weekends and long hours into the night. In one year she paid off the loan. The next year she had made more money than her father would make in 5 years.
With her additional savings she converted her home into a more solid house with bricks and a tin roof to protect from the rain. This was her dream house so she didn’t want to cut any corners. She sourced the bricks and mud, finalized the design and hired workmen from the village to do the labor. She stood over them day and night, supervising the quality of work and making sure her house was going to be the best in the village.
Her neighbors would come by to watch the work and share their opinions. “Are you crazy?” they would tell her. “What on earth is a woman of marriage age doing spending her time building a house? Silly girl. This is the age to get married!”
But she stood, resolute.
“Why are you wasting so much money?” said her father when he stopped by the house. “You will get married like every other girl in Ashte and move to your in-laws place and manage a new life there. Please don’t do this. This home will be useless.”
Still undeterred. “This is going to be the best house in all of Ashte,” Yogita said, proudly. “It will never be useless. I want to build my own house and if I find a boy who I like, I will marry him and bring him here to live in our house.”
Some of her friends had married men who drank a lot and didn’t work. She heard their stories and watched them struggle. If she were to end up married to a drunkard like them, she would have to manage things on her own. Better she should learn how to earn a living and run a home now. She wasn’t going to wait for a man to do it for her.
In the spring of 2016, Kenneth Desouza, Program Director of Sundara, visited Ashte to research where Sundara’s soap recycling workshop should be located. The tuk-tuk driver, chaiwallah and rice farmers all directed him to the same place: “Go to Yogita’s house – it’s the brick one by the large tree on top the hill.”
Kenneth followed the directions and came to Yogita’s house. He saw that it was indeed the best and biggest structure in the town. The walls were sturdy, the roof was solid and the windows allowed for great ventilation. She had so much space in the house that she could easily rent out the unused rooms. Kenneth decided to rent half of the house as Sundara’s newest soap recycling workshop.
Yogita’s house during the workshop opening ceremony
In May 2016, Sundara officially opened our soap recycling workshop in Ashte. We were accompanied by Soapbox soap, a photographer and a TV crew. Over 200 people in the village came for traditional dancing, snacks and the ribbon cutting ceremony at Yogita’s house.
“I felt so proud when the foreign visitors came. I couldn’t believe everyone was here, taking pictures of my house! I always told my family it would be the best house in Ashte, and that day I finally was able to convince them. So many people from America had come to this village – just to be in my house. It was a dream come true.”
She continued, “Before, no one supported me, but after the opening of the Sundara workshop they have shifted their attitudes and have started to encourage me. My mom and dad are extremely happy with my house and the income I make from renting it.”
Yogita is proud to call Sundara her tenant. “Every child in my village now gets Sundara soap and hygiene classes because of the work that 3 local women are doing every day in my house. I know that children’s health here will improve and I’m proud to play a small role in it.
Yogita (in blue) with the Sundara team
Yet, perhaps best of all is the message Yogita hopes this house will give all the girls in her village. “The day after the opening a girl, Sheetal, who is just 15, came to visit me at my house. She said, ‘When I grow up I want to own my own house, just like you!’ and it made me happy. Her dream is my reality. It is possible. I want to inspire women here and everywhere that they can reach their dreams just like I did.”