Sebastopol-based WomenServe opens an e-commerce store to help impoverished women in India

By Laura Hagar Rush, Townsy Media, December 31, 2020

WomenServe's founder Nioma Narissa Sadler (right) with a young village woman in Rajasthan. (Photo courtesy of WomenServe)

WomenServe, a west-county-based nonprofit, is opening an e-commerce store to help fund the organization’s work providing water, education and economic opportunities for women and girls in Rajasthan, India — a place that founder Nioma Narissa Sadler calls “one of the hardest places for women on earth.”

“It’s not just because of the cultural repression,” she said, “but also the desert terrain, and extreme weather – super hot in summer, cold in winter and then the monsoons, with flooding.”

Sadler, who said she has always been drawn to Indian culture, first learned about the plight of women and girls in Rajasthan, when she and her husband Drake Sadler, founder of Graton-based Traditional Medicinals, were visiting the area in 2006. Rajasthan is where the Graton-based tea company sources its senna, the primary herb involved in Smooth Move, its best-selling product.

While Drake talked with the male farmers, Nioma talked with the women in the village and learned they walked 10 hours every day to get water for their families. They make the return trek carrying 50 pounds of water.

“When you walk that much, walking is your life,” Nioma said. “There’s no time for anything else.”

When she told Drake about this situation, they decided to focus the efforts of Traditional Medicinals around providing clean water to the villages—as well as working with local farmers to produce the first commercially available organic senna.

WomenServe, which Nioma founded in 2016, is building on the work Traditional Medicinals has been doing to address the problem of water scarcity.

“It all begins with water,” Sadler said.

The villages are located in a large but little known desert called the Thar Desert (the most populated desert in the world), and over the years, Sadler has found herself deeply immersed in the complex issue of water availability.

After first learning about the women’s long trek for water, Drake promised to dig deep wells for the village. What the Sadlers learned almost immediately is that the government had already sunk deep wells and in so doing had essentially sucked all of the water out of the local water table, rendering much of the well water undrinkable.

Nioma began researching how the people of the area had gotten their water before the advent of wells. What she found was a rich and complex tradition of rainwater capture, which had been almost ignored for 70 years.

For thousands of years, before the deep wells came, people in Rajasthan relied on a three-tiered system of water harvesting that included taankas (rainwater catchment tanks at individual homes), village naadis (rainwater catchment ponds), and khadins (agricultural rainwater systems).

Altogether, Traditional Medicinals and WomenServe have funded the construction of more than 565 taankas (given to individual women in their names) and over 100 naadis and khadins, which provide water to 25,000 people.

Once a woman has a taanka, she has the water (and the time) to grow a small kitchen garden to provide a greater variety of nourishing foods for her family.

In most years, the taankas catch enough water for about six months. After that, they can be refilled by water trucks, either from the community pond or from government water sources.

Beyond water

WomenServe’s work may start with water, but it doesn’t stop there.

Having a local water source frees up women’s time. The group estimates that they’ve saved local women and girls over 200,000 hours of walking.

One result of this is that girls suddenly have time for schooling. WomenServe has aided in the construction of five primary schools that employ female teachers, while female health workers have been trained to provide basic health services there.

“One of the big changes I’ve witnessed in the last 11 years is the shift from ‘We don’t educate our daughters’ to ‘My granddaughter will be the first woman in my family to go to college and follow her dreams,” Sadler said. “The woman who said that said, ‘That opportunity is like a sweet in my mouth.’”

Sadler is actually working on a short film, documenting how women’s opportunities have changed (or not changed) through the eyes of three village women, one a teenager.

Another result of not having to spend 10 hours a day walking for water is that the women in the village suddenly have the time to work for money to help their families. WomenServe has supported the creation of women’s self-help groups, where members pay a small amount of dues each month and then borrow from the group to start their own small businesses or a create a group business.

Providing the tools to help women better themselves economically is also where WomenServe’s new e-commerce site comes in, Sadler said. She hopes to fill the store with products made by women from Rajathan and other parts of India.

Right now, the store sells beautiful patchwork facemasks, large tie-dyed scarves from Rajasthan, elaborately embroidered travel pouches and purses, as well as cashmere scarves and shawls. But this is only the beginning.

This is the first step in Sadler’s plan to create a social business called Bangle Sisters that will spin off funds to support WomenServe. (Sadler herself sports an armful of bangles, which she, like the women of Rajasthan, rarely takes off.)

“Once we get to a certain point of sales, we can’t continue running under a non-profit,” she said, “so we’ll become a social business that will benefit WomenServe and the artisans we support.”

You can find WomenServe’s e-commerce store at https://women-serve.myshopify.com/