Marking the International Women’s Day, SHAlINI SAKSENA catches up with women who have stepped outside their comfort zone to change the mindset of society by empowering women
‘Fair share necessary’
Despite a humble upbringing and hailing from a middle-class family Kunti Gupta, never gave up on her education. After completing her BCom from Chhattisgarh, she completed her post graduation and did her BEd after marriage. It was around this time — 2007 — that Sehgal Foundation was looking for women who could work in Mewat.
Since agriculture is pre-dominant there, Gupta was asked to work in this sector where she has for the next 10 years. In 2017, she and her husband, an accountant with the Foundation, were transferred to Muzaffarpur, Bihar.
An interesting aspect of the villages in Muzaffarpur is that the men go out looking for work while the women stay at home and till the land. However, not all women work on the land and most of the agricultural land lies vacant. That’s where Gupta stepped in.
It has not been easy. First, Gupta has a personal commitment — her younger daughter is studying. There are days where she has to be in a meeting at 6 am and has to leave home by 5 am. This means that she has to complete all household chores — cooking, washing, etc. But the good thing is that her husband understands her nature of work and is extremely supportive.
“The days when I have to leave early in the morning, my work is over by 3-4 pm and I can go home. Whatever household work is left is completed then,” Gupta explains.
As is common in UP and Bihar, the men go to work in other cities and the women stay in the villages. A challenge that Gupta faced is that while farming is common, they practised traditional methods. “Women who do farming don’t know which fertilizer to use and when. Which pesticide to be used for what plant diseaseIJ They don’t know, looking at the crop, what disease it had or how often should one water the fields,” Gupta says.
So the problem lay not in completing household chores, but to try and convince the women that they have the power to make a change and they have to step out of their homes. For this, Gupta held the meeting where not just the women but men to attend the meetings.
“Communities all over the country are the same. From my experience of working in Mewat, I knew that just asking women to come would not work. We had to ensure that there was no gender discrimination. We just told the men that while they are out working in other cities, the land lies vacant which can be tilled by women if they gained knowledge. That it meant an increase in income and yield was something that the men understood,” the 44-year-old tells you.
Since most women are illiterate, simple solutions were given that they could remember and follow. “We tell them to use potato planter machine to sow instead of manually which takes days and costs money. With the machine, it not only gets the work done in half the time, it saves labour cost. Not to mention the increase in income of the person who has the machine,” Gupta tells you whose knowledge in this field came from learning from a person who knew the ins-and-outs of agriculture.
Not only does Gupta work towards women participation, her work also entails finding new avenues of income for the villagers. For example, if the village needs a potato planter machine, somebody has to buy it. It can then be lent to other farmers leading to income generation.
Another challenge that the region faces is clean drinking water. Most villagers end up paying for RO water which is expensive. Gupta gave the villagers three-pot filtre. The cost of this device, she tells you is around Rs 2,500 which lasts for 25 years with no hassle of changing the candle, etc.
“This filtre has been widely accepted by the villagers because it is cheap and easy to maintain,” says Gupta who gets a salary of around Rs 25,000 with other benefits like insurance, travel allowance, mobile, etc.
At present, Gupta is working to use solar energy pumps that can be mounted on e-rickshaws. “These pumps can help farmers water their fields as big as 40 acres in one go, as opposed to 10 acres free of cost provided they buy the panel,” Gupta says.
lesson learnt: Be happy
leaving a job paying her a six-figure salary back in 2007 was not an easy decision to take. But Pooja Murada’s high-pressure job in the corporate sector meant that she had to do a lot of traveling and leave her six-month-old baby home, something that her husband also didn’t want her to do.
“I don’t regret the decision of leaving my job because I had taken it. But I can’t say that it was easy especially when you are being paid so well. My family and I were not happy that I had to leave such a small baby at home and travel so I resigned. But this didn’t mean that I didn’t want to work. I decided to take up a job where I didn’t have to travel and the timings were not too hectic. Around this time, the Ministry of Tribal Affairs was looking for a media consultant. I still remember the look on the faces of the interviewees when they saw my last drawn salary. I told them that it was more for the love of work rather than the salary,” Murada recalls, who is the person behind the community radio station Alfaz-e-Mewat (Haryana) and is director-communications, Sehgal Foundation.
Working with the Ministry gave her the window to the development and opened opportunities that she had not imagined and never looked back. When Murada joined the Foundation 11 years back, it didn’t involve communications work. But more to do with the introduction of community media and other communication media and ensure that information reached the villagers in an interesting manner so that it registered.
The challenge for a person like Murada who had to access to and understands the power of media, couldn’t believe that the villagers didn’t know simple things like who is the Prime Minister of India (back then). Class IX students didn’t know which country they were living in. Menstrual hygiene was another dark area.
“I had seen cases of prolapsed uterus because she would be asked to fetch water very soon after birth. You didn’t go to the doctor because there was no one she could talk about it. The fact that there are no toilets and women who had just given birth were made to sit on the charpai paya for hours to build pressure inward since they didn’t have the energy to sit for long in the fields was another concern that needed to be addressed.
“We felt that there was a need for a medium through which these myths and taboos were broken. We understood that one to one medium would take time, community radio was the answer. Today, the radio reaches out to 225 villages and is broadcast for 13 hours and the villagers are the broadcasters. The content is varied — educational, entertainment and even programmes for farmers and is localised. Then there are programmes on how to converse water since Mewat is a dry area,” the 42-year-old explains.
Then there are several programmes for women. Questions, through the radio were put to the community on what they would do to address the toilet issue. “There are many Government schemes for women that they don’t know about. Through our programmes we tell them how to get access to these schemes and how to fill in the forms, preventing multiple visits to the concerned department. We don’t promise the outcome as a radio station, what we do can do is that we can link the villagers to the right officer,” Murada says adding that there most successful programme has been providing villagers a connect with the Chief Judicial Magistrate or his representative, through the community radio — Kanoon Ki Baat.
“This programme, that was started two years back, soon became a rage. So much so that even the police department wanted a slot who send their representative and via the radio villagers can put forward their concerns through live calls. The idea is to promote an interface with the officers that the villagers otherwise have no access to,” Murada says who also shares content with other community radio across the country.
Though Murada left her corporate job, today, she is happy given the fact that she commands a degree of respect.
“While I left a job that was high paying and I could have been at a much-settled place financial today but I have no regrets,” Murada says and tells you that the most important lesson that she has learnt is that even though the problems are the same, it is the magnitude that is different. How to be happy in any given situation and open to change has been the biggest lesson that I have taken away,” Murada says.
Ferrying women safe & sound
She was very young when her family decided to shift to Delhi from Kolkata — it was in search of a job. Even though the family has a land back home, there was not enough cash in hand to meet daily expenses.
For Tumpa, now 21, this move to the Capital was an eye-opener. But soon the problems of the big city caught up with the family and they decided to shift back. But things weren’t better there as well and two years later, they were back in Delhi. The two-year gap in her education meant that she couldn’t get admission in any school in Delhi. Also, the family’s financial situation didn’t permit her to study further. Her father is a salesperson, her mother cooks for others and the younger brother works at a cyber cafe. Her elder sister is married.
But Tumpa never gave up and enrolled in the Open School and cleared Class X and then XII. It was when the family shifted to Mayur Vihar Phase-I in Delhi that Tumpa came to know of a driving institute run by a woman. Tumpa learnt how to drive a car, got a licence and was offered a job. But the traffic situation scared her. That was when she heard of an organisation — Pillion, that was offering jobs to women who knew how to ride a bike. Enlisting the help of her neighbour who had a Scooty, she learnt how to drive and was ready in a couple of months.
“It has been around 10 months that I have been ferrying women from the Karol Bagh Metro station to Jhandewalan and nearby areas. I earn around Rs 12,000 a month and now contribute to the family income that stands at Rs 35,000 a month,” Tumpa says. She is the first bike taxi driver in the Capital in a fleet of 60.
“Seeing how much I earn, other girls want to do what I am doing. Even the lady who taught me how to drive the bike wants to join,” Tumpa tells you.
The good thing is that Tumpa only ferries women and has a 9 am to 6 pm shift, hence safety concerns are addressed. For a ride up to a km, the charge is Rs 20, after that it is Rs 5 per km. In a day, if Tumpa does 10 rides, she gets Rs 15 per ride, for 15 rides she gets Rs 17 and for a maximum of 20 she gets Rs 18.
like all girls her age, Tumpa is all set to get married later this year. “I would like to continue what I am doing but this will depend on my husband and what he wants and where he is living. I will, of course, convince my in-laws to let me work par aapko toh pata hai, humare yahan sasural walley kaise hotey hain,” Tumpa says.
‘The strength & power is within us’
It all began 17 years back, in 2001. A social activist by profession, Anjali Makhija’s work took her to one of the most backward places in Haryana — Mewat. When Makhija started working in the region the most common problem was illiteracy among girls, poor healthcare and no toilets.
Working towards improving the lives of women by tackling these problems became a priority. More specifically, Makhija started working on providing life skills programme to adolescent girls. It began with teaching stitching skills. The platform ensured that the girls were given the necessary skills that were needed to be able to communicate properly by educating them, building confidence and giving other life skills so that they could make calculated decisions about their lives. In 2008, around 2000 girls passed out. But over the years, the programmed underwent a change and Makhija’s job changed to village governance and empowering the women.
“My calling now is basically to see the participation of women in governance in States like Rajasthan, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh even though the Sehgal Foundation works in States like Bihar and Karnataka as well. We work with the village level institutes — Panchayat, at the school level — school management committees under the Right to Education Act and look after the schools and in the health sector — Village health, sanitation and nutrition committees — under the National Health mission. What we are looking at is the active and meaningful participation of women in all these sectors like 33% in Panchayat, in school management 50% and in health committees it is 50%. But this was mostly on paper and it was their men counterparts who would come forward and participate,” Makhija says and started — Mahila Sangathan. Here, the women were empowered, trained so that they can spearhead the village development in their respective areas by identifying issues, addressing them and calling for an action plan.
Makhija tells you that when one talks about women empowerment, it is very different in rural India. “For a woman in the village, empowerment is all about their participation in governance activity. A woman’s decision-making ability — at home and outside — is not theirs. The aim here is to make sure that when these women step out of their homes, they are the ones who take the decisions. They are the one who goes to the various departments to get the work done. They are the representatives and it is their job to be at the forefront and not their menfolk,” Makhija tells you, who is born and brought up in the Capital.
But to get women participation was not an easy task for Makhija. There is need to provide them with a safe environment so that they can come out and express themselves. “In villages, a woman is totally dependent on the menfolk for the tiniest of things. Given our patriarchal society, a lone woman feels insecure and is diffident but collectively they draw a lot of inspiration from each other and feel empowered,” Makhija says who herself has had a very liberal upbringing.
But that didn’t mean that her struggle was any less. “My family never stopped me from doing what I wanted to do. But it was the outside world where I had to face problems. Being in an authoritative position, it intimidated men working in various departments who were not used to a woman enter their office to get work done. Not that they were discourteous, they just didn’t know how to proceed. They were traditionally used to men coming with village problems,” Makhija tells you.
So she had a dual job. To convince the men to accept women and the women to just step out of their homes which was more due lack of faith in not just themselves but also Makhija and her team. Women were not convinced that they could bring about a change.
Travelling alone was another issue that Makhija had to face. In unknown areas, she would switch on her GPS and take all the necessary precautions that a woman takes today like try and avoid travelling at night or travel with a male colleague. “It was not as if I felt threatened, but there is no harm is being prepared,” Makhija says.
In all Makhija’s experience, it is this faith and confidence that is necessary for rural women. “It can either make or break them given the conditions in which these woman live — a society where they are totally resigned to the fact that nothing can be done. They don’t have an inherent faith in themselves that too can be part of a solution. Hence it is important to break this resignation and motivate them. To find out what their wants and needs are. What inspires themIJ This self-reflective action helps,” the 47-year-old says.
A message that she has for her kind: “The power and strength lies within in all women. All they have to it reflect inwards and bring it to the fore by holding each other’s hands and understanding the power of collective action. In order to bring about a change, they have to reach out and grab it. Try and try and the success will be yours, is the ageold mantra. No change is going to happen sitting at home.”