When we began the journey to lift a million people out of poverty, we undertook a year of exciting study, travelling, and meeting NGOs, experts from corporates, government officials, and many rural community members. This study took us to Bangladesh, where we had the privilege of meeting Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, founder of BRAC. “Women can manage poverty; they can also manage wealth”, he said. With this thought and our experiences with the rural communities, we believe women are a catalyst in the prosperity of their households and the wider community.
For developing and developed countries, empowering rural women is a precursor for achieving holistic development. While the nation has made positive strides in the corporate world, rural women need more focus. Despite economic upliftment initiatives such as Skill India Mission, Beti Bachao Beti Padhao, and others, there’s still a lot to be desired in the improvement of formal education for rural Indian women. They also need more opportunities to work outside the home and have wages and treatment on par with men.
We believe that it begins with attitude—most often formed by age-old societal norms. We need to create a 'can-do' attitude in rural women. Building a spirit that women can contribute to their own well-being and that of their households and their village is essential. Women should be able to dream of a better future for themselves, their family, and their village.
Another related mindset is what we call mental poverty—a lack of hope. For example, often women in the village tend to think of such scenarios: "I walk so many miles for my family's daily need of water. My daughter cannot go to school as she has to join me in fetching water. There is nothing I can do. My daughters and I have to wait until dark to relieve ourselves. The earnings of my husband are sometimes insufficient to feed our children. I cannot support him. There is nothing I can do." That is the most heartbreaking thing I have seen. Breaking the vicious cycle of poverty is often more difficult than building a toilet or water structure.
Creating a 'can-do' attitude and being able to dream of a better future are the building blocks for women leadership, especially in rural India. I believe that women in leadership roles bring many unique qualities: They are collaborative rather than competitive; they tend to build harmonious relationships that benefit the whole.
A small village Kasarwadi, in Maharashtra, offers me hope. Here, women lead their village development committee. They decided that each house should prepare healthy meals, and roped in their Anganwadi worker to conduct nutrition awareness sessions. They also arranged for door-to-door eye care van visits and motivated the elderly to take eye tests. Importantly, they also invited the residents from 12 nearby hamlets for eye screening. These women created such a massive impact on the residents of other villages, and they developed similar committees to bring in a change in their village. These committees are also working on improving the household income plans for both men and women. Tribal women of the Kasarwadi village took ownership of not just their development but also of their village, and created a ripple effect in the nearby villages. This ownership by women for the betterment of their lives is the first step in the ladder of empowerment.
In urban and some parts of rural India, there are a few hopeful examples of women taking this first step of empowerment. Ruma Devi, a tribal artisan from Rajasthan, started a self-help group with ten other women from her village and put rural women on the fashion map. Bhuri Bai is the first tribal artist of the country to popularise the art of Pithora painting. She was awarded the Padma Shri for her contributions. There are many budding entrepreneurs, social leaders, artists—women, who are using their skills and potential to change their and the lives of people around them.
The basic services of water and sanitation are a must for any human being. If villages do not have these, women suffer the most. They are forced to walk miles to fetch water. The women struggle to do any work aside from their domestic chores. Their daughters often skip school. Alleviating these are essential to the health and dignity of rural women.
In addition, many doors can be opened by rural women for rural women.
Empowering Self Help Groups (SHG) and women-led enterprises through financial literacy: Participating in SHGs enables women to exert control over resources, participate in decision making, and access resources. It leads them to become aware of their rights and entitlements within the community. However, challenges like market linkages, capacity building, financial literacy, and management are often faced by SHG women. NGOs and corporates are doing some wonderful work in this area, but more is needed. For example, BharathRath, a social platform, is creating markets for the products by SHGs, artisans and tribals. An economically empowered rural woman is aware and can leverage the loans and schemes. For example, in agriculture, art, animal husbandry, or any other enterprise. Mandeshi Foundation, BRAC, and Seva International do wonderful work in this direction.
While the health of women is a complex issue, there is one focus area I would like to suggest: Let's work together to alleviate anaemia, especially in adolescent girls and women. With more than 64 million anaemic adolescent girls in the country, it should be our first health priority. It is not impossible with the right coordination and partnerships. I want to thank the many ASHA workers I have met who are doing such wonderful work. This community-driven approach is the key to promoting health and the right nutritional practices.
Digital empowerment for women is a massive opportunity and great learning for us. Surprisingly, women embrace digital platforms quickly. Approximately 49 percent of rural women have access to a mobile phone. It can greatly benefit rural women with the help of a well-thought-out strategy in this direction. In rural Maharashtra, we have experimented with an initiative of conducting training and awareness programs on health and nutrition, mother and child care, SHGs empowerment, and so on, using the power of a video conferencing platform.
The impact of the above initiatives is the creation of women leaders—with a can-do attitude, and the training in financial, economic activity, health, nutrition could create a leap forward as empowered women are the best changemakers. All of us need to participate in this. But it is my firm belief that the real sustainable change has to be community-led where gram panchayats and community leaders like Anganwadi workers and ASHA workers take the lead with support from the civil society and government. Empowering women is a challenging road but one truly worth taking.
The writer is the co-founder, managing trustee and director of the Swades Foundation.
The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.
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