Many of them have stepped out of their homes for the first time and are enjoying the freedom and growing sense of self-worth.
Despite the ups and downs in India’s march to attain its Sustainable Development Goals for gender equality and women’s empowerment, there are some truly heart-warming stories of the new surge for gender equality coming from rural India. Rural Education and Development (Read) India, through its Community Library and Resource Centres (CLRCs) in 107 villages across 12 states, quite clearly leads in the empowerment race.
Started in 2007, its programmes are supported by the government as well as several business houses as their corporate social responsibility initiatives. Read India works largely with rural communities low in social indices like health, literacy, skills and earning capacity and propels them to take control of their lives. “Empowering rural communities is critical to alleviating global poverty,” says Geeta Malhotra, its country head.
Read has 42 permanent CLRCs and women feel safe coming to them with their children and sometimes with their mothers-in-law. Since the community provides the space for the centres they also feel a sense of ownership. Each CLRC has 2,000 to 3,000 books in the language of the region whether it is Hindi, Urdu, Bengali or Marathi. Some 24,000 women are getting literate. There are pre-school classes for the 0 to 6 year olds; computer and digital literacy classes for young people and skill training for 6,100 women who are eager to supplement family incomes or empower themselves.
Many of them have stepped out of their homes for the first time and are enjoying the freedom and growing sense of self-worth. Skills imparted range from tailoring and knitting to beauty culture, teacher training for nursery schools, care giving and working in hospitals as hospital assistants, carpentry and weaving. Products made by women have market linkages and they are earning anything from `2,000 to `6,000 depending on the time they can give. Now with training in financial literacy and business communication skills they are turning towards entrepreneurship.
Farah, 22, of Aghapur village in Rampur, Uttar Pradesh has blossomed in the two years she has been associated with Read India. Before joining the centre she was teaching various subjects in Urdu, Hindi and English in a private school in her village. However, she wanted to improve her prospects. After meeting Mr Yograj, coordinator of a Read India Resource Centre, she was interviewed and selected as an Early Childhood Development trainer. She began working at Patwai village sub-centre of Read India, also in Rampur. “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 centre earning `6,000 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, after marriage they are caught in the vicious cycle of pregnancies and child rearing.
Swati Baburao Pibal (24) of Karmad village in Maharashtra worked as a schoolteacher for five years when she joined Read as centre’s coordinator. Though the responsibilities at the centre were very different from her earlier experience as a teacher, she enjoyed the work because it brought her closer to the community. She learnt new skills, how to do impact assessment surveys, training programmes and management. She conducted trainings in stitching and sewing, computers and other need-based requirements of the five villages she was working with. She was able to register 250 women for various courses and, like Farah, takes home `6,000 a month.
Priyanka Saini’s story of change is truly amazing. In her early twenties, Priyanka is from Shahbad Mohammadpur village of Dwarka, Delhi. After completing school, she joined a one-year computer course in an institute in Delhi. She would also visit the Read India Model Centre Library to read books. On being informed about a vacancy for a computer trainer at the centre, she applied and was selected in 2012. Priyanka has given basic computer literacy to 100 children. In 2013, Read India partnered America India Foundation (AIF) for a programme called Adobe Youth Voices and Priyanka was selected to be a master trainer for children interested in movie making skills. She oversaw a batch of 30 children in a one-year course. Based on her excellent performance, AIF and Adobe sponsored her for a six months course in graphic designing. Priyanka continued to volunteer at the Dwarka centre and simultaneously did her bachelors in social work through Read India’s distance learning programme in Karnataka.
After completing various courses she joined the Dwarka centre as a librarian. She also became a master trainer for staff in Library Science Management and ICT programmes. Married now, she has moved to Ambala but wants to continue her association with Read India by running a centre from her home. “I got the opportunity to learn new skills and teach those skills to the children of my village. My communication skills and confidence levels have zoomed, thanks to Read India,” says Priyanka.
Taufa Devi, in her early eighties, is probably the oldest teacher at a Read India Centre. 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 a 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. Beaming with joy she announces, “She is the first one in and the last one out of the centre.”
Empowerment begins by drawing out women who have never expressed their dreams, desires or problems. An art therapist and positive parenting expert from Vimhans hospital gives drawing paper and colour to women and asks them to put down whatever is uppermost in their minds. They draw pictures of liquor bottles, drunken men, violence at homes, children not going to school and their grim future. The art therapist’s discussions are based on the insights gleamed from the canvases. They talk about literacy, skills, how to supplement family incomes. When women master a skill and start earning, they are asked to invest first on their child’s education. They discuss health and are encouraged to spend on their own health whether it is going to a doctor, buying medicine or eating nutritious food. It is only after these needs are met from their earnings they discuss how to help their husbands. Geeta Malhotra says 150 master trainers do the confidence building, livelihood training and economic empowerment.
Using traditional skills and locally available materials like wild grass called moojh and tapper, in Geejgarh in Dausa, Rajasthan women are using this long grass to make coasters, baskets and even furniture. With wood and iron base, the tall grass is knitted to make chairs and tables. Earlier this grass was burnt. Aarohan in Jaipur was Read India’s platform for rural women to showcase various products using indigenous skills like cot knitting, dari making, stitching, knitting and intricate zardozi work.
A lot more handholding is needed before you see women surging ahead! The UN Gender Gap Index puts India 132 out of 148 countries. The child sex ratio (CSR) number of girls to boys at birth has been inching up but was still at a low of 909 in 2013. However, with corporate houses providing resources as well as setting targets to achieve equality in gender development, the road ahead is better defined.
Read India has become an invaluable partner for achieving the SDG goals. Currently it has 29 CLRCs with 12 satellites (small centres) reaching 400,000 rural population through 150 villages around these centres. It has special programmes on literacy and education, digital literacy, women empowerment and livelihood, health, life skills and youth empowerment, use of ICTs and special programmes for farmers. In the last three years it has trained 30,000 rural communities with special skills.
Over the next three years the number of CLRCs is to increase to 45 reaching out to over 600,000 rural people across 200 villages. Over 50,000 rural communities are to be empowered with special skills.
We are translating sustainable development goals into action by organising special programmes and making rural communities understand the concept of community development with strong community participation, community management and community ownership of the Read Centres and programmes, says Geeta Malhotra.
The writer is a veteran journalist based in New Delhi
— Charkha Features