Voices for the Voiceless – Transforming Women’s Lives in Rural India

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step”, an ancient proverb states. My journey from Tokyo, Japan, to the remote villages of Shirur County in Pune District was inspired by Gandhi’s oft-quoted message, “Be the change you want to see in the world”. It began in 1997 with the chance reading of a book titled “May You Be the Mother of a 100 Sons”. A simple statistic in the book that 61% of Indian women were still illiterate according to the 1991 census shocked me. It spoke volumes of the condition of women, particularly marginalized women in India in the 1990s. Literacy was clearly a powerful solution to empowering and envisioning a better tomorrow for poor women.

It was my 10th year of a successful career teaching English at a well-known university in Japan. A course on Peace Education led me to integrate peace and human rights learning into my English language courses. The response from students was tremendous and many were motivated to campaign for various human rights issues. On my part, I often felt guilty that while I was motivating students to take action I myself was not really doing anything to make a difference. The statistic for women’s illiteracy was like a wakeup call that shook me out of my complacency. I felt that as an educator my skills were perhaps, more needed back home. That is how Ashta No Kai (ANK), a women’s literacy and development project was born – to educate and empower marginalized women in India.

As a first step, I wrote a one-page proposal to set up a small project in a local slum near my mother’s home in Pune. While circulating it among friends and colleagues in Japan, the response was, much to my great surprise, overwhelming. My campaign plea that literacy could change the cycle of poverty and dependence which characterized the lives of poor women touched a chord among many Japanese. The idea of a slum school was reminiscent of the terakoya schools in Japan’s Edo period in the nineteenth century which had helped ordinary Japanese achieve a high level of literacy. As a result, more than one thousand Japanese friends, colleagues, and acquaintances sympathetic to the cause pledged their wholehearted support. Before long five groups formed an umbrella organization – Ashta no Kai-Japan – in Shizuoka Prefecture, Kawasaki city, Sumida-ku (a ward of Tokyo) the island of Kyushu, and a student group at Obirin University. The project seemed to have taken on a life of its own.

With such resounding support it was impossible to limit ANK’s work to just one slum in Pune. The reach had to be wider. During one of my trips to Pune I had the good fortune to meet a renowned surgeon and social activist Dr. Banoo Coyaji. Her NGO, the KEM Hospital Research Center had a health project in 30 villages in Shirur County. Dr. Coyaji suggested that ANK’s work would be more effective if it were rural based as the need for such an intervention was much greater in villages. She kindly offered to assist in setting up the project which was a great boon as I had no experience in the social sector field. I was also very struck with a quotation of India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru that was prominently displayed in her office, “To awaken people it is the woman who must be awakened. Once she is on the move, the family moves, the village moves, the nation moves”.  It was as if fate itself had led me there.

ANK was formally launched on October 9, 1998 with 23 Japanese supporters who had come to Pune especially to attend the opening ceremony. Ten drought prone villages and hamlets located in the interior of Shirur County at a distance of about 55 to 70 kilometers from Pune were selected as the project area. The villages with an approximate population of 15,000, lacked basic infrastructure, such as adequate schools, clean water supply, health care facilities, toilets, electricity, and good roads. A typical village consisted of a central cluster of houses, surrounded by many satellite hamlet settlements, which were two to five kilometers away. Access to many hamlets was difficult due to lack of transportation and bad roads. As in many parts of the country, the status of women in Shirur County too was low. Poverty, ignorance, illiteracy, and social traditions hampered women’s progress and affected the quality of their lives.

An initial survey conducted in the project area revealed that there was a high level of illiteracy among women; 54% as compared with 23% for men. Fourteen literacy centers were set up in the target villages with the hope that the campaign slogan of 100% literacy would soon become a reality. I was in for a rude shock. After two years of struggling to promote literacy, the program had benefited only a few women. The top down approach of assuming that literacy was what rural women needed had not worked. While many women realized the long term benefits, their need for literacy paled in comparison to the immediate necessities of their daily life. What women wanted were income-generating activities and access to credit.

Fortunately, around the same time the Self-Help Group movement was taking off in India. The reality on the ground dictated that ANK too should begin to organize women into these micro-credit models of voluntary savings and loan collectives. 125 Self-Help Groups (SHGs) were soon established in ten villages to enable rural women to access funds for emergencies and undertake income-generating activities. SHGs proved to be a great boon to poor women. Despite having no collateral as individuals, they were now able to access credit to undertake income-generating activities by collectively pooling whatever little savings they had and escape the clutches of money lenders who charged as much as 120% interest.

SHGs initiated a silent revolution in the villages. More than 2,000 women were helped to personal empowerment and some degree of financial independence. It is important to point out that ANK merely acted as a catalyst in setting up the SHGs. All decisions regarding SHGs were made by the women themselves; from the selection of members and office bearers, the meeting date, monthly saving targets, and loan disbursement, to the amount of interest and repayment schedule. Poor and illiterate women now began to make decisions that affected their lives and gained individual strength and confidence as part of a group.
Today SHGs are run entirely by village women and act as a backbone for the majority of village activities. Women, who had hitherto never left the four walls of their homes except to fetch water, have suddenly realized their strength in unity. They band together to solve the problems of their village, whether it is banning illicit liquor sale in the village, the poor quality of the school’s midday meal, absentee teachers or even infrastructural problems like water shortages and bad roads. In addition, village women successfully run diary cooperatives as well and manage 200 backyard poultry projects.

When it was clear that the literacy program for adult women was not effective, ANK decided to turn its attention to decreasing the dropout rate for girls believing that the educated girl of today would become the empowered woman of tomorrow. Educated girls would more likely resist pressures to marry too young or have too many children, and would be better mothers.  Educating girls was a major challenge since in 2000, there was only one high school over four to eight kilometers away from the ten villages ANK worked in. Parents fearful for their daughters’ safety and skeptical of the benefits of educating them did not encourage them to attend high school. Girls as young as 13 and 14 were married off.

To improve access of village girls to higher level education and address the social problem of child marriages, I decided to launch a Bicycle Bank in 2001, an innovative initiative at the time. Village girls were given bicycles to attend high school since most of them lived over four to eight kilometers away from the nearest high school resulting in high drop-out rates. The bicycles proved to be wheels of change that impacted the lives of hundreds of girls. To date, ANK’s Bicycle Bank has enabled 900 girls to stay in school. Girls’ attendance in schools is at almost 100%; in fact, in some village high schools there are more girls than boys in the classroom. More importantly, fewer village girls are now married off before the legal age of 18.

A natural offshoot of the Bicycle Bank project was a Scholarship program that was launched in 2004 which has, so far, provided 500 girls with scholarships to pursue higher education. From the 9 girls who applied in 2004, the number of applicants has grown to 96 this year.  They are pursuing higher studies and venturing into fields like computer science, electronics, engineering, automobile engineering and pharmacy besides the traditional ones. It is very encouraging to note that many rural girls are now availing of opportunities presented to them that their mothers and grandmothers could never have dreamed of .

Another initiative for adolescent girls, Kishori Mandals was also launched in 2001. Weekly meetings conducted by empowered grassroots workers raised awareness of gender issues, laws relating to evil customs like dowry and early marriages and gave girls critical inputs in life skills. Theyprovided a platform for girls to build self-confidence and independence. A similar program, Kishor Mandals, was initiated this academic year to help adolescent boys, who are at an impressionable age, question traditional male stereotypes in society and work on changing their own attitudes to promote a more gender equitable society in village communities.

Ashta No Kai has made great efforts to help poor rural women make a better world for themselves. It has supported women’ empowerment efforts and addressed their multi-dimensional needs by giving them access to work and income, access to information, opportunities and choices. The combination of added financial autonomy and increased confidence levels has given rural women a significant voice in their communities. They are now viewed as assets rather than liabilities and have begun to negotiate new roles and opportunities for themselves. Women have begun to participate in village governance and development and have started demanding their rights for public services and goods. It is encouraging to see poor women who were once powerless gain a greater sense of security, a greater sense of dignity, a greater sense of self worth and a vision of the future. More importantly, there is a positive change in their social status. They command greater respect within their households and extended families.

Ashta No Kai was established in 1998 to bring hope, strength and a vision of empowerment to marginalized women. Thirteen years later, it is watching the seeds it planted grow knowing that it has made a positive difference to the lives of the many women and girls it has touched. Rural women have been deeply influenced by ANK’s commitment to education, literacy, financial independence, and social justice. The NGO has acted as a catalyst for social change by raising women’s consciousness about gender inequalities, by helping them identify and analyze some of the critical issues and problems they face in their lives, and finally by giving them the confidence to find and seek their own solutions.

I have never regretted the decision to “retire” from teaching and reinvent myself as a social activist. Needless to say, this decision was largely influenced by my Zoroastrian upbringing and my mother who was my role model. She lived her motto: “to live is to give” believing strongly in the Zoroastrian value that happiness is best attained by making others happy. Seeing first-hand how bravely she dealt with life’s challenges gave me the courage and confidence to embark on this adventure. Although my work in the social sector has not been a smooth ride, it has been a rich journey of discovery and learning. I feel truly humbled to observe how cheerful and content the women are despite the little they have. I admire their courage and fortitude, their resilience, endurance and strength despite their struggle for survival working against incredible odds of poverty, victimization, vulnerability and exploitation.

It is encouraging to know that ANK’s efforts towards empowering rural women have resulted in their finding a voice and a platform to participate actively in their own development. The project has been effective in enabling many rural women to achieve their full potential as literate, healthy, skilled and socially aware individuals. There is still, however, much work to be done. I look forward to a day when gender inequity, poverty, violence and injustice will be replaced with a world where women and men work together as allies to build a culture of peace and where Gandhi’s dream of “wiping the tear from every eye” will hopefully, become a reality.

– By Armene Modi, Founder of Ashta No Kai