The Indian constitution grants equal rights to men and women. Yet the reality is that women’s lives are still shaped by customs and traditions that work against them. Daughters are viewed as less valuable than sons. Girls are taught to believe that they are less important than boys. The number of women dying in childbirth is among the highest in the world and more than 40% of women are unable to read. Women currently make up only 6% of the Indian Parliament.
However, although social conditions continue to work against women, changes are taking place even in rural India. Women have risen to the challenge and their lives are being transformed.
The women survivors of the Orissa cyclone of 1999 have not only recovered from the disaster but are establishing themselves into strong enterprises and improving their economic situation. Tearfund partner EFICOR worked with the women from the affected coastal areas and formed several women’s self-help groups. One of these groups, called Basanti Durga, of Jamunaka village, received a loan of 150,000 rupees from the State Bank of India. They invested 60,000 rupees in rice production and used the rest to buy a rice-milling machine. All 17 members of the group are actively involved in the whole process of making the rice ready for sale. The villagers are happy to have a rice mill in their village and are very proud of their self-help group.
Not only are these women becoming involved in business, but they have all become literate through attending literacy classes. They are now confident in dealing with business people who may have cheated them before. The self-help groups in the area have also joined together to form federations and are now looking at the possibility of starting bigger businesses.
Individual women are also making a difference by learning new skills. Tulsi Ben, age 35, of Ghotval in rural Gujarat, was a migrant worker earning barely enough money to feed the family. With the help of EFICOR she planted 17 pomegranate trees in the wasteland surrounding her house. In spite of being criticised by her neighbours and not getting any rewards in the beginning, she worked hard. To irrigate the young trees she fetched water from a lake half a kilometre away from her house. Today she sells the fruit in the nearby local market. Not only is she able to take care of her day-to-day expenses, she is also able to afford education for her two daughters.
Women are also being encouraged to take up leadership positions. EFICOR partner SEBA works in rural Chattisgarh (Central India). Mrs Sonmati belongs to Kaikagarh self-help group. As a member of the group, she attended a number of training programmes. Her confidence increased as she began interacting with men and women outside her home. She heard from other women who held key leadership positions. This motivated her and her hidden potential began to surface. With her new confidence and encouragement from fellow group members she stood in the local Panchayat Elections. She is now the Sarpanch (Head) of the village and has become an inspiration to other women in and around her village.
Through the work of EFICOR and its partners in rural areas across India, women are being empowered. Not only are their lives are being changed but their daughters and other women now have more opportunities to improve their lives in a country where women are still marginalised and where many baby girls continue to be killed even before they are born.
The author, Kuki (Lalbiakhlui) Rokhum, is an Interserve Partner working with EFICOR as Co-ordinator of Donor Relations. Her address is: EFICOR, 308 Mahatta Tower, B Block Community Centre, Janakpuri, New Delhi – 110 058, India Email: [email protected] Website: www.eficor.org