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From Marriages to Markets, Empowered Women Are Changing India

Empowerment begins by drawing out women who have never expressed their dreams, desires or problems.

TThe UN Gender Gap Index puts India at 132 out of 148 countries. The child sex ratio (CSR) – the number of girls to boys at birth – has been inching up but was still at a low of 909 in 2013.

On the other side of the spectrum, India’s External Affairs Minister and Defence Minister are women. The Speaker of the Indian Parliament is also a woman and women account for 11.8 percent of the members of the Lok Sabha and 11 percent of the Rajya Sabha. In the metros the changing stature of Indian women is evident. They have stormed corporate citadels and the urban workforce. They are TV anchors. Bollywood actresses of repute are faring well in Hollywood, and in the field of sports, PV Sindhu, Saina Nehwal, Mary Kom, and women’s cricket and hockey teams are reaping laurels for the country.

In the just-concluded season of the ‘Kaun Banega Crorepati’ TV show, women from small towns and villages showed they were as good as men in their general knowledge and presence of mind. The only person to have won Rs 1 crore on the first edition of the programme was a woman, Anamika Majumdar, a social worker from Jamshedpur, who planned to utilise the money for the empowerment of tribal women and their children.

Even as India struggles to attain its Sustainable Development Goals for gender equality and women’s empowerment, Indian women are marching ahead. Empowerment begins by drawing out women who have never expressed their dreams, desires or problems.

Many of them have stepped out of their homes for the first time, and they need pre-school classes, literacy programmes and most importantly, skill development that helps them become financially self-sufficient. Also, an important aspect, which many programmes overlook, is the ability to bring their children, family members or even their mothers-in-law with them. Home life, after all, is a reality they cannot entirely skip.

Incidentally, such steps and the empowerment they bring are not restricted to any age group. You are never ‘too old’ to be empowered.

Taufa Devi, in her early eighties, is probably the oldest teacher at a READ India Center. Despite family resistance to her joining the Skills to Succeed training programme because of her age and bias about traditional women’s roles, she insisted on joining the basket weaving course, in which she already had basic skill. Taufa Devi, who had never stepped out of her house, is today the head trainer of the Skills to Succeed basketry training and is empowering women to earn and take charge of their lives.

Started in 2007, READ India programmes are spread through its Community Libraries and Resource Centers (CLRCs) in 129 villages across 12 states. “Empowering rural communities is critical to alleviating global poverty”, says Geeta Malhotra, its Country Head.

Since the community provides the space for the Centers, they also feel a sense of ownership. Each CLRCs has 2000 to 3000 books in the language of the region whether it is Hindi, Urdu, Bengali or Marathi.

Some 24,000 women are getting literate, eager to supplement family incomes or empower themselves.

Skills imparted range from tailoring and knitting to beauty culture, teacher training for nursery schools, caregiving and working in hospitals as hospital assistants, carpentry and weaving. Products made by the women have market linkages, and they are earning anything from Rs 2000 to Rs 6000 depending on the time they can give. Now with training in financial literacy and business communication skills, they are turning towards entrepreneurship.

Besides just money or literacy, another much-needed gain from such empowerment programmes can be understood from the example of Farah, 22, of Aghapur village, Rampur, UP. A teacher in a private school in her village, things changed after she met Mr Yograj, coordinator of a READ India resource centre.

“I enjoyed the teaching work and did basic computer training work. When there was a vacancy for a computer trainer, Mr Yograj encouraged me to apply, and I got the job” says Farah. Today she teaches computers as well as helps in the management of the Center, earning Rs 6000 a month.

Farah is not in a hurry to get married, and her parents are not pushing her. She is saving money so that she can send her parents on a Haj pilgrimage, she says.

Like Farah, some 100 girls working through the READ initiative have grown in confidence. With money in their pockets and respect for them in the community, they are delaying their marriage. This is a major sign of empowerment because 47 per cent of the girls in India marry before 18, the legal age of marriage. Subsuming their dreams and ambitions, they are caught in a cycle of pregnancies and child-rearing.

There are many more such examples and unexpected benefits of empowerment. Here’s another scenario – Using traditional skills and locally available material like wild grass called moojh and tapper, in Geejgarh, Dausa, Rajasthan, women are using this long grass to make coasters, baskets, and even furniture. With a wood and iron base, the tall grass is knitted to make chairs and tables.

Earlier this grass was burnt, adding to the pollution. Today it is changing lives.

A long distance runner, the SDGs are steering it to grow and reach out to more people. In the next three years, it hopes to set up 45 Community Library and Resource Centres catering to over 600,000 rural people in another 200 villages. A whopping 50,000 rural communities will be skilled to find employment and empowerment.

The SDGs are being turned into actionable programmes in literacy and education, digital literacy, women empowerment and livelihood, use of ICTs, health, life skills and a special programme for farmers to arrest the cycle of farmers suicides happening across the country.

Such initiatives, if adhered to as they should be, will make meeting the UN goals regarding the SDG closer to reality.


This article is a part of The Better India’s attempt to drive conversation around the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and where India stands with regards to meeting these goals. Many organisations across the country are helping India proceed towards fulfilment of these goals and this series is dedicated to recognising their efforts and the kind of impact they have created so far.


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