Over the years, Pitchandikulam has supported a number of women’s self-help groups and income-generating enterprises, and is always looking for new and innovative ways to improve rural products and services by identifying local needs, whilst keeping its finger on the pulse and understanding larger developments in India as a whole.
One such trend is the rapid growth in recent years of the rural Indian cosmetic industry, with large companies using increasingly aggressive marketing and distribution strategies in order to secure their dominance of this hugely profitable sector. The growing demand for cosmetic products in the rural areas is coupled with the increasing capacity of the rural population, even in economically less fortunate areas, to afford cosmetic products and services.
The challenge is how to use this trend to benefit the rural population itself, whilst mitigating the more negative effects on health and the environment of the increased use of chemical cosmetics. Pitchandikulam’s village outreach arm, the Sustainable Enterprise Development in the Auroville Bioregion (SEDAB), is developing ways to address some of these questions by creating women-run enterprises in the sector of health and beauty, using traditional knowledge and locally available herbs.
Through the partnership with Auroville Village Action Group (AVAG) women receive the training and knowledge to become entrepreneur village beauticians and wellness consultants. Women are introduced to well-established beauty parlours and are trained in health and hygiene. At the Nadukuppam Women’s Centre, training is given on the preparation and application of herbal beauty products. Through this program, rural women are able to earn a livelihood through setting up their own beauty parlors, practicing from home, or finding employment in the field of wellness and beauty care.
The most evident concern for providing a healthy, eco-friendly beauty service has emerged out of the awareness that many Indian women with darker skin tones face serious side effects from the use of fairness products. Tamil Nadu, for example, consumes the largest amount of skin-lightening creams of all the states in India, and many of these creams contain harmful chemicals, including potentially dangerous steroids and even carcinogens. Moreover, the demand for these creams is based upon the prejudice that paler skins are more beautiful.
Taking this as a starting point, women taking part in this enterprise have received training through a holistic approach to beauty. Many of the women who have been trained understand the need to source their ingredients locally, through sustainable harvesting practices, and they encourage women’s self confidence and the view that ‘dark is beautiful,’ and that ‘healthy skin is important, not white skin.’ Although many of the natural recipes used have less immediate results, many customers are ready to experiment with the healthy alternative as they have already experienced the harmful impacts of chemical whitening products.
The beautician does not only provide alternatives to the harmful chemical products, but is also trained to share her knowledge on what beauty can be truly defined as – that beauty is not necessarily only confined to their physical appearance, but that it can be sourced from within an individual and can be displayed through one’s character and actions. By encouraging healthy diet, offering massages and providing education on hygiene, these women play a key role in spreading awareness on many levels within their communities. The beneficiaries are trained in Ayurveda to better understand the region’s traditional remedies so that they can identify whether a patient is Vata, Pitta or Kapha, and based on this they can better advise on diet, and provide them with the right treatments based on their body, character and behaviour type. The ingredients used are mostly freshly provided and include fruits, vegetables, dairy products, natural oils and many herbs.
Currently there are a total of 22 trained beauticians and wellness consultants, some of whom are practicing from their homes and others who have opened their own salons. Through this enterprise the range of income for individual practitioners can be from Rs. 2000-20000 per month, contributing significantly to their family incomes.
There are however many challenges and creating awareness about the importance of alternatives is not easy. The difficulty is that chemical cosmetics are still widely used and are promoted through heavy media advertising campaigns, which is a huge competition. Cosmetic companies use increasingly more sophisticated strategies in reaching the rural markets, such as offering affordable, individual use packs and sachets of various creams and shampoos for a few rupees each, allowing village women to use ‘glamorous’ products they see on their TVs.
Whilst changing cosmetic habits has been a major challenge and many village women are still reluctant to spend money on herbal products, the wellness and beauty practitioners are finding clever ways to keep going, through additional sources of income, focusing on and expanding the more popular services such as bridal makeup and hair, selling more fancy items such as beads and jewelry and decorating bridal sari jackets.