Author: Adele Newman, Fellow, YES Global Institute
‘Women are not your beneficiaries.’ The Unnati Global Forum began with a strong statement by Prema Gopalan, founder of Swayam Shiksha Prayog (SSP), an organization which has enabled over 1,45,000 rural-based women to become entrepreneurs, community leaders and change-makers since 1998. ‘No’, she continues, ‘the women farmer and entrepreneurs that we work with are equal partners with corporates, with the government and with us.’ SSP works to create a movement of women which can tackle global challenges at a local level – zero hunger, gender equality, sustainable communities and economic growth. By empowering grassroots women to become leaders and entrepreneurs through social enterprises and livelihood, agriculture and health focused businesses which serve the community, a new generation of job creators is fostered in rural Maharashtra.
Image: SHG Group in Waluj Village, Mohol Taluk, Solapur District, Maharashtra
Image: Savitribai Phule, one of the first generation of Indian feminists who championed women’s education
We began by offering our blessings to Savitri Bai Phule, when we reached the villages just outside Solapur where SSP has a strong presence. She is one of the first generation of Indian feminists who was a champion of women’s education and fought vigorously against society’s oppression of women. Living in cities such as Delhi or Mumbai, we travel hundreds of kilometres every week for work and for play and we forget that twenty kilometres is a barrier to accessing education, sources of income and very often, exposure and knowledge of new, potential markets. In these villages, many families have adopted the ‘one acre model’ which is gives women agency over a one acre patch of land, which is owned by their family (usually a family owns three to four acres of land). They then take responsibility to decide what is grown, how it is grown, what is consumed and what is sold. The women who enroll in this scheme are then given training in organic farming, hydroponics, organic fertilizers and pest control and how to establish a seed bank. But, importantly, there are also key trainings in finance, business skills and markets as well as empowerment and confidence building in order to help manage and grow their enterprises.
This has helped families move away from a trend of mono-cropping which has swept the region as sugar cane is a less labour intensive crop, but leaves farms vulnerable when water shortages hit the region. One woman is growing almost twenty-five different types of crops on her one acre with which to feed her family and livestock as well as sell in the market when there is a surplus. This now provides many families with an extra level of food security as they are able to be self-sufficient and directly manage their family’s health and of course, all the women maintained that the taste of their vegetables is ‘bilkul mast hai’! It has been so successful in many cases that women have now moved to have this land registered in their name, giving another level of empowerment to these women.
Alternative sources of income have also been unearthed out of the one acre model, and women are now producing organic fertilisers and pest control solutions out of cow dung and locally grown herbs, these are now being sold in the market. Organic seed banks have also been established, which gives independence from the low quality seeds available from the government as well as diversifying and securing incomes to give opportunities to their families. Women invest 90% of their earnings back into their families and communities, compared to a number of 30-40% by men, meaning that these women have healthier and more educated families: (https://waka-waka.com/news/2013/09/why-women/#_ftn1)
Image: Women show their experiments in hydroponics, using soil-less agriculture methods to grow cattle feed.
Image: Alternate sources of income through establishing and maintaining an organic seed bank
We must invest in women’s empowerment and entrepreneurship. Globally, only 16% of all philanthropy goes to women and girls, says Megan Sullivan, Head of Partnerships at The Womanity Foundation, and 60% of that goes on reproductive health which does not represent the challenges that women face or look at women’s empowerment holistically. In addition, women are absolutely critical to the agricultural sector and public and private institutions have to recognize the potential of women in ensuring and combatting food security. When women are equipped with the resources and opportunities to negotiate, influence and control the decisions that affect their financial security, they flourish and achieve long-term, economic empowerment because of our intuitive drive and capacity to drive social change within the community. Organisations have harnessed this by valuing women as active participants in their own journey and organisations such as SSP have been able to drive long-lasting impact through education and capacity building. In the words of Savitribai Phule, ‘all gets lost without knowledge.’