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«Published Annually Vol. 6, No. 1 ISBN 978-0-979-7593-3-8 CONFERENCE PROCEEDINGS Sawyer School of Business, Suffolk University, Boston, Massachusetts ...»

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For several decades now, Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have been playing a pivotal role in linking the needs and concerns of women to all critical issues on local, regional, national and global agendas. They have made significant inroads towards addressing issues of gender inequity while advancing women’s empowerment and human rights. Their efforts at the grassroots level towards poverty alleviation and social justice have provided poor women with effective economic and social empowerment strategies to overcome and combat the gender marginalization they face on a daily basis. Despite the many challenges they have had to face in their efforts to empower women, NGOs have helped bring about an environment of positive change for millions of poor women by enhancing their understanding of the patriarchal system that has exploited them and deprived them of their rights for centuries.

What is Empowerment?

It would be worthwhile here to consider what constitutes empowerment; a key factor in transforming the status and position of women in society to generate long-lasting social change. According to Kabeer, it is "The expansion in people's ability to make Conference papers © Knowledge Globalization Institute, Pune, India, 2012 strategic life choices in a context where this ability was previously denied to them" (Kabeer 2001). UNDP’s Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM) focuses on political power or decision-making, education and health as the three variables of empowerment. Kishor feels that variables such as education and employment are “enabling factors” or “sources of empowerment” rather than empowerment itself (Kishor 2000a). Stromquist emphasizes the psychological component to women’s empowerment which “includes the development of feelings that women can act at personal and societal levels to improve their condition as well as the formation of the belief that they can succeed in their change efforts”. She stresses that the psychological component while important, needs to be strengthened with economic resources. Stromquist also urges empowerment programs to take into consideration women’s needs and to go beyond “nutrition, health and family planning and move into consciousness raising and mobilization (Stromquist 1995). It is clear then that empowerment of women involves a host of factors including women’s understanding of their subordinate condition and its root causes; as well as economic opportunity, social equality, and personal rights.

Ashta No Kai (For a Better Tomorrow)

The paper will now shed light on the initiatives taken by Ashta No Kai (ANK), a small community based grassroots organization working in 10 villages of Pune District to demonstrate how using pro-poor, pro-women strategies can lead to social transformation for rural women. ANK started more than a decade ago with the vision of empowering and improving the quality of life for marginalized women and girls in India’s underdeveloped rural areas. The project’s mission was to meet rural women’s multi-dimensional needs by increasing education, training and health investments for women in rural areas. ANK promoted women’s economic self-reliance by introducing women-friendly credit systems and gave poor rural women access to information, opportunities, and choices to help them make a better world for themselves.

Project Area

The project area is spread over 10 drought prone villages and hamlets located in the interior of Shirur Taluka (County) at a distance of 55 to 70 kilometers from Pune along the Pune-Ahmednagar highway, with an approximate population of 15,000 (male: 7663 and female: 7329). The villages, in sharp contrast to the developed industrialized cities on their fringes, are agrarian, economically marginalized, and lack basic infrastructure, such as adequate and clean water supply, electricity, basic health care facilities, and good roads. A low ground water table further affects crop cultivation. A typical village consists of a central cluster of houses, surrounded by many satellite hamlet settlements, which are two to five kilometers away. Accessibility to many hamlets is poor due to lack of transportation and bad roads. At the time that the NGO initiated its work in the villages of Shirur Taluka, the status of women was low. Gender bias, poverty, illiteracy, lack of job opportunities, as well as social traditions and superstitions continued to hamper women’s progress and affect the quality of their lives.

Literacy Program

According to the World Bank, literacy education is one of the best investments a country can make for its future growth and welfare (United Nations, 1980). Literacy initiatives were therefore given the highest priority when ANK started its work in the villages in 1999. An initial survey conducted in the project area in 1998 indicated that there was a high level of illiteracy among women; 54% as compared with 23% for men. ANK began its literacy campaign by establishing 14 literacy centers in its target villages with approximately twenty-five students in each center. The literacy program had a grassroots approach involving women in the planning and implementation of the project, providing content that was relevant to their lives, and conducting the learning through an interactive and democratic process. By 2001, a study by ANK of 170 learners showed that 37% of women became functionally literate after one year of enrolling in literacy classes. After a few years though, the novelty of ANK’s approach to literacy wore off and fewer women participated in the classes. ANK then developed different approaches to keep the women engaged. Some of these modules included using state-of-the-art computer software to teach literacy, paying daily wages to encourage women to attend class, giving awards to Self Help Groups for 100% literacy among members and setting up “curtain libraries” in women’s homes. The “Each One Teach One” model was also availed of with younger children teaching their mothers. By 2004, 75% of women in the target villages could sign their names, no small achievement for women who had previously never held a pen in their hands.

The promotion and achievement of literacy among adult women in its target villages was the biggest challenge ANK faced since its inception. Despite the fact that the program used a bottom-up approach involving women in the entire process, it failed to reach its targets. ANK did manage to help some women make small strides towards functional, and for some emerging literacy, but it was a struggle. While many women realized the long term benefits of being able to read and write, their need for literacy paled in comparison to the immediate necessities of their daily life. ANK then launched an oral literacy campaign building on

Conference papers © Knowledge Globalization Institute, Pune, India, 2012

the oral tradition of storytelling in villages. The first initiative that provided legal literacy informing women about their rights and familiarizing them with laws concerning them proved to be very effective. The local ILS Law College volunteered the services of their staff and students. Boosted with the success of the program and the large numbers of women who attended, ANK continued to provide oral literacy on many critical issues related to women’s everyday life conducting workshops on gender equity, health, nutrition, and sanitation, among others. These workshops where women gathered away from their daily grind helped to not only provide information about vital issues for the women but also promoted unity and a sense of sharing and solidarity.

Bicycle Bank

When the project could not make the inroads into literacy for adult women that it had hoped for, ANK decided to shift its focus to the education of the girl child. For the younger generation, education is a vital key to development as it is the educated girl of today who becomes the empowered woman of tomorrow. It has been said “When you educate a man, you educate just one individual, but when you educate a woman, you educate an entire family”. The ripple effect of one educated woman on her family and those around her is far reaching. Providing education and job skills to women can empower them to overcome their poverty and helplessness. An educated woman is more likely to ensure that all her children, including her daughters, receive an education. She will perhaps be not only more attentive to her own family’s health and hygiene, but also to the living conditions in her surrounding neighbourhood. More importantly, the acquiring of some skill will enable her to bring in an additional income to the family.

Many of the girls in ANK’s target villages lived over four to eight kilometers away from the nearest high school, preventing them th from continuing their education beyond the 7 standard. In efforts to curb these drop-out rates, ANK initiated a Bicycle Bank project in 2001 providing girls with bicycles to attend high school. Thanks to the 900 bicycles donated to village girls, the enrollment rate for girls in ANK village high schools is at 100% today compared to the national dropout rate for girls of 41% according to the 2011 census. The Bicycle Bank program proved extremely effective as a revolutionary model in the field of development for the education of the rural girl child. Besides being replicated, it was featured on national and international television programs and in the media. The simple bicycle thus became the wheels of change for village girls, preventing early marriages, arresting dropout rates while encouraging them to stay in school and complete their education.

With the increased enrollment of young girls in high schools, ANK was further able to assist in the campaign for equal education by providing scholarships to 450 girls to date to continue their education beyond high school. Village girls are now venturing into fields like pharmacy, computer applications and electronics and automobile engineering. Moreover, recognizing that one of the other major hurdles for girls going to school was the lack of toilets, ANK quickly stepped in to provide toilets for all its village high schools. Furthermore, with increasing incidences of violence against women, ANK introduced Karate classes for adolescent girls to learn self-defense techniques.

ANK also initiated Kishori Mandals, weekly workshops for adolescent girls to build their self-confidence by giving them inputs in life skills and information on topics they would not readily receive at home or in their school curriculum. The workshops raised awareness about educational, social, health and legal issues and were conducted by empowered grassroots workers who became role models for the girls. Recognizing that women’s empowerment and equality cannot be achieved just through the efforts of women alone, and that it required male support and behavior change among both men and women, this year, the empowerment activities for adolescent girls were extended to include adolescent boys as well. These workshops focus on raising awareness of gender bias and involve boys in a better understanding of their capabilities and roles in promoting a more gender equitable and just society.

Thanks to the Kishori Mandals, more young girls have become aware of laws relating to them and have opposed customs like dowry and early marriages. What is most heartening is a visible increase in their self-confidence and the numbers of young girls opting for higher education in fields that their mothers could never have dreamed of. ANK’s initiatives for the girl child have helped to promote her education, improve her social status, prepare her for better motherhood, and ultimately develop a confident assertive rural girl who can contribute her share and become an active partner in village development.

Dairy Cooperatives

Since its target villages lacked skill or vocational training facilities as well as job opportunities, ANK initiated many vocational training programs in tailoring, embroidery, candle-making, etc., for the women hoping it would encourage them to establish their own small businesses. The women were not able to sell their products however, mostly due to their poor quality and the

Conference papers © Knowledge Globalization Institute, Pune, India, 2012

lack of a ready market for them. ANK then set up Dairy Cooperatives in two villages to provide rural women with sustainable livelihood opportunities since they already possessed the skills required to make them a success. The Dairy Cooperatives transformed the lives of rural women by enabling them to become economically independent and self-reliant. Rural women took over the dairy management and running of the entire set up on their own, thereby furthering their ownership of the business. This was one more step towards their own empowerment - promoting a higher status for women as managers and income generators for the village economy. Members of the cooperative are proud that they can earn Rs. 3,000 to Rs. 7,000 to add to their monthly income just from the sale of milk.

Self-Help Groups

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