(Above): (From l-r): Bollywood stars Priyanka Chopra, Ranbir Kapoor and Shilpa Shetty at the Mijwan Fashion Show in Mumbai, Jan. 23.

Fashion shows always light the imagination of people who love to wrap themselves in beauty, and often raise money for good causes. Rarely, however, do they celebrate the dramatic changes in the lives of young girls, whose futures had been determined by traditions, thousands of years old, before the Mijwan Welfare Society, writes Jennifer Neale.

The Mijwan Fashion Show held in Mumbai, Jan. 23 was created by award-winning Bollywood actress Shabana Azmi. The event displayed elegant designs by India’s versatile fashion designer Manish Malhotra.

About twenty three Bollywood stars and twenty top models walked the ramp in these outfits dazzling a crowd of 300 guests attending the event to recognize Shabana Azmi’s father, who inspired her, and the people who helped make a difference in Mijwan.

“My father, Kaif Azmi, was a rare poet who practiced what he preached in life,” says Shabana Azmi. “After getting a paralytic stroke which incapacitated his left arm and leg, he gave up the comforts of Mumbai and settled Mijwan, a village frozen in time. Today, Mijwan is becoming a model village, but it was an arduous journey. I remember asking him how he did not become frustrated when change would not occur at the pace he wanted, and he answered with calmly — “When working for change, you should build into that expectation that change might not happen in your lifetime, but this should not stop your efforts, even if they happen after you.” ”

The Mijwan Welfare Society (www.mijwan.org) now has four training centers, and is responsible for changing a village tradition that viewed daughters as 2nd class, did not provide them any education, and called for their marriages to be arranged at the age of 12 or 13.

(Above): (L-r): Bollywood stars Hrithik Roshan and Anushka Sharma at the Mijwan Fashion Show in Mumbai, Jan. 23.

Dr. Nilima Sabharwal, founder of Home of Hope (www.hohinc.org), was one of the people who helped move Mijwan forward. She met Shabana Azmi at a party hosted by a mutual friend in San Francisco, in 2000.

Upon learning that there was a very little school there that taught a few young girls to sew, she was anxious to visit this village on her next trip to India. “In the Uttar Pradesh area, each village seemed more dilapidated and dismal than the one we had just driven through,” explained Sabharwal.

“When I found the school, things seemed to be getting worse. In the very small dark room, with no lights, there were these young girls sitting on the floor and leaning against the walls while they embroidered fabrics by hand, because there were no chairs. There was no bathroom and the women had to go into the fields when necessary. It was impossible to not help these women!”

After returning to California, she appointed Dr. Nalini Bhat for this job. The first step was to supply more sewing machines. Because electricity was unreliable in the village, 10 foot-pedaled sewing machines were purchased. A teacher was hired, and bathrooms were installed. The second step was to add more courses and a larger school being build, and a generator was purchased so small fans could keep the air moving during the hot season.

To encourage the families to send their daughters to the training program, Dr. Bhat designed a stipend program. This was done as an experiment, and covered the costs for two years, so progress could be measured, and the daughters could experience for the first time the feeling of earning their own independence.

(Above): (Top): Shabana Azmi (c) with children at Mijwan Welfare Society, an NGO that works for the empowerment of villagers in Mijwan in Azamgarh, Uttar Pradesh, India. (Bottom): A known feminist, Kaifi Azmi was focused to uplift the lives of rural women. He started a training school for tailoring and embroidery for girls in Mijwan, U.P. This center is funded by an U.S.-based non-profit organization Home of Hope, Inc.

Now, just 8 years later, a tradition that restrained the imagination and curiosity of these young women has been removed. The girls are now able to earn money, have been taught how to keep track of their income and the third step has been introduced, and the school has expanded into a production site.

Bollywood star Ranbir Kapoor joined the cause of Mijwan Welfare Society, recognizing that 50% of the Indian population is under the age of 25. He acknowledges that attention must be turned towards rural India, and focus on empowering the girl child.

“In Mijwan we run a school, a college, a computer center and sewing and chikankari center,” says Shabana Azmi. “I was told that the embroidery work of my girls in Mijwan was so exquisite, that butterflies would be tempted to sit on them! I hope that you have a spare moment to see their fine work online. These garments and embroidery at the Mijwan Fashion Show will catch your breath.”

Rupali Saiya began Crafts of Hope, a division of Home of Hope, when she was only 15 years old. When she visited Mijwan, she taught the girls how to crochet and knit, and their products are now being sold in the United States.

“We have no middle people, here are HOH,” states Sabharwal, “but all are volunteers, and are proud that we have positively touched the lives of 50,000 children. We are directly in touch with our kids, and to watch them blossoming is their gift to us.”