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How the Dhonk Center is employing women and putting a stop to tiger poaching

Dhonk Centre, India

Back in 2005, in India, tiger poaching reached a crisis point. The tiger population was dwindling and the men responsible were arrested. While this was a victory for the tigers, many families were then left with no income. Enter the Dhonk Centre, a women’s collective which aims to employ wives and daughters, train them in skills and craft making, and allow them to make an honest wage, deterring future tiger poaching.

Named after the tree that comprises 70% of the forests in Ranthambore where tigers live, the Dhonk Centre is a stop on Contiki’s Eternal India trip and is one of our most cherished MAKE TRAVEL MATTER® Experiences as it touches on both animal and human needs. We sat down to interview Divya Khandal and ask her about how the Dhonk Centre has helped boost women’s work and education in Ranthambore, as well as reduce tiger poaching in the area. Who knew handmade crafts could have such a major impact?

Why was Dhonk set up?

“Ranthambore had a major tiger poaching crisis almost 20 years ago now. We lost almost 70% of the tiger population, so, at the time, it was really important to get ahold of the people who were hunting the tigers. Our sister foundation, Tiger Watch, found the people responsible and arrested them. But, when the arrests were done, the families came forward and said ‘You have taken away our livelihood. Now, how do we make money to run our households’?”

“So, that’s how Dhonk was born: as a way of giving sustainable job opportunities to the families of ex-Tiger poachers by offering skill training in native crafts. It’s this spreading of goodwill amongst the people and livelihood being created.”

Dhonk Centre, India

Image source:Contiki

Why crafts?

“We chose crafts as a medium because it doesn’t require a degree and anyone in the household can participate; young children to women to men, anyone. Initially we just started with basket-weaving and toy making. Now, we make over 200 products, and they’re all made by the locals.”

“We really believe in skill building because that’s the future of this country. Education, yes, but in smaller rural setups like our own, if we can build skills, people will have livelihoods without any doubt.”

What kind of crafts can visitors purchase here?

“Well, we have beautiful handmade items. They’re all long lasting and slow fashion items, we don’t use any polyester or materials that are going to end up in a landfill. We sell children’s clothing, beautiful bags, lots of unique designs.”

“We follow a lot of animal or nature themes here, so lots of patterns in that style which are very different to anything sold in a lot of places a traveller might have been to before. There are lots of options, and there’s something here for everyone.”

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How was the lack of economic opportunities linked to tiger poaching in the region?

“So, I think it’s not just that economic opportunities aren’t there, it’s also that there is a demand. When we talk about tiger poaching, or any wildlife poaching, it’s basically because there’s demand and supply for it.”

“There was a demand from international markets that wanted tiger bones, furs, body parts, etc. and they said they’d pay for it, so the poachers started to hunt the tigers. Before that, their hunting was limited to just bushmeat which they used for their own consumption or for selling locally. Until there stops being demand, there will always be someone supplying it.”

Dhonk Centre, India

Image source:Contiki

How does the Dhonk Centre help to reduce tiger poaching?

“We help in our way by providing livelihoods to women so that their husbands, fathers, or brothers, do not have to go into the jungle and hunt the tigers for their own livelihood.”

“I remember a story quite vividly. A porter came to our house one day saying that his family is now earning an income and his wife regularly comes in and takes on work at the Dhonk Centre, which supports them. I think that sums it up: it’s just about giving these families a new direction and making sure that there’s work for them besides tiger poaching.”

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Can you shed some light on the gender inequality in education that women face?

“I think in some parts of India there is still that notion that it’s better to have a boy. But, in my experience, over the last few decades or so, I have seen that women are taking a bigger role in running the household, and this has changed the perspective and the family dynamics of having women and daughters in the house.”

“Only now are women getting [an] education like men, and this is becoming a big thing in the cities. But in the rural setups like here, it’s not so easy because the facilities aren’t there. Plus, a lot of people in the village work as day labourers very early on – they prefer to make a daily income and come back home with some money. Education takes a backseat. But, I think this has to change.”

What’s the training process like for women at the Dhonk Centre?

“I started off with 11 widowers who were desperate for clean money. They said they wanted to work and wanted a safe working environment, so we started off with just things that they were making at home like baskets to keep bread in or bedspreads out of old leftover fabrics they had. We started to sell those items in the store we had.”

“Slowly, the women improved their skill in making these items, and then they became trainers helping to train and guide the new women that joined the collective. The quality of the products are maintained this way and we are passing down skills.”

“We are a certified fair trade business as well, which is something we’re very proud of. We follow a lot of fair trade standards like providing funds to life insurance policies and medicare. The daughters of our single mothers get free scholarships for their education as well; and if some women aren’t able to physically come in and work every day, we help them establish their own small set up in the house by providing interest-free micro-loans, which they can return once they’ve established themselves.”

Dhonk Centre, India

Image source:Contiki

Do you have a favourite memory since being involved with Dhonk?

“Every day is a new memory! Twice, though, we have been invited to speak at prestigious organisations about our business and explain the good that it does. We spoke at the World Bank and at the Berkeley University in California and those are memories that will stay with me forever I think.”

What can Contiki travellers expect when they Dhonk?

“Oh, lots of colours, lots of designs, and lots of smiles.”

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How does the tourism industry help support you and the women working here?

“There are very few places that do real work like we do, and I’m not trying to brag, this is just a fact. Sustainable tourism is the need of the hour and Contiki has been very supportive of our organisation and this is what we need. Big companies can support organisations like ours which are working from the ground to directly help communities and animals that are in need – by visiting us, you are supporting that cause. That’s what we can all do together, as people.”

women-dhonk-centre

Image source:Contiki

What are your ambitions for Dhonk and the future?

“We hope to expand and get more families involved in our work, maybe we can have a bigger centre as well where there’s enough work year round for all the families that we work with, and where we can run the skill training programme for young girls.”

“I hope that some of the young girls we train continue doing their work and grow into their own businesses when they’re older. That’s something I aspire to see.”

Is there a way that our readers can donate to your cause online?

“Yes, we have a website! People can shop our beautiful handmade creations from there and support not just our local community, but also the tiger conservation efforts of Ranthambore.”

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