All about empowerment

circa 2013

There has been a lot of talk on the importance of empowering women! One of our supposed PM candidate has been more than busy wooing women as suddenly the 49% of us seem to be good electoral fodder. India will not become a superpower if women aren't given opportunities. We need equal representation for women at all levels to make them empowered he clamours for those willing to hear him. I again wonder why it has taken 6 decades to understand this, why bills linger for decades waiting to be discussed and passed. Let us not talk about rapes, rapists who sit in power, patriarchal kangaroo courts who dispose of lives of women they feel are custodians of their honour. And how can we forget women who lull their hungry children to sleep every night with promised they cannot keep. 

Forget about all this. Suddenly we the women of India have gained importance and are told that we must feel free and safe and wanted. I would love to know how this leader would achieve that and why no one felt the same way earlier. The 49% of us has been there from day one! So why did it take 66 years to realise that: India can't be a superpower until we empower women. Wonder when that will happen.

Today I want to share with you two real stories of women's empowerment that I have witnessed and even been a part of. When I decided to set up project why, I also decided to give a chance to those who were never given one and thus sourced my team from the very community project why was reaching out to. Many were women and each is a story of empowerment waiting to be told.

I will today tell you the story of two such women, though one of them was a baby when I first met her. I mean Rani and Kiran. Rani must have been about 15 or so way back in 2000 when we set foot on the street she lived in. A school drop out - not because of poor marks, Rani is Harvard Business School material - but because she was beaten for being late in paying her fees and her doting mother withdrew her from school. Rani had finished a nursing's aide course and was waiting to get married as in her community girls are married at an early age. Though she lived in the shadow of a  very dominating mother who barely allowed her to speak, I could sense a feisty spirit that was raring to break free. Thankfully her mother liked me and accepted that Rani help me in my work and she thus 'joined' project why and was in charge of our nutrition programme where we distributed bananas and cookies to children. The way she set about her task from minute one showed that she was a born leader. That banana and cookie tray was her first step to empowerment. A decade later she was and still is heading a large part of project why. Along the way she finished school, got her Bachelor's degree and I am told she will soon get her Masters. 

But that is not the real side of her journey to empowerment. The real side lies in her acquired ability and prowess to alter the destiny of her family and thus become a true agent of change. The young girl who once only wore the ungainly clothes her mother chose, has now convinced the same mother that wearing a pair of jeans or a skirt does not change who you are and that values do not depend on the way you dress. Rani's deep beliefs are intact and she has shown that one can be 'modern' without giving up what is important. Rani has transformed the quality of life of her family and her aptitude in sifting out the good from the not good is remarkable. The child who once had to carry water from long distances and sleep on a mud floor, is now a savvy woman in charge of her destiny and the destiny of her family. A truly empowered woman who will walk the extra mile when needed and hold on to what she believes. 

The other 'woman' who got empowered along the way is Kiran. She was 1 day old when I first held her and is now a teenager. Thanks to the support of her aunt Rani who had understood that a good education was the real trampoline to a better life, she  was admitted in a good public school and is now in class VIII. She is a spirited teenager who knows her mind and has her head in the right place. Kiran is the little girl who spends her holidays teaching our challenged children,  some of whom she has known all her life. She had opinions and defends them when needed. 

These two young women are the proof that if given the right conditions and support, one can battle strangling patriarchy and unfair and unreasonable diktats. They are the kind of women who can turn India into the 'superpower' mentioned above. But there is caveat. These two young ladies could only begin their empowerment journey because they had moved from survival mode to risen from survival mode thanks to the hard work and determination of their mother and grandmother. They had the basic enabling environment that is the first stet to any empowerment: food, a roof on their heads, access to school, health and so on.

When politicians come up with highfalutin ideas about empowering women they forget that in India today millions of women are denied the very basic needs to survive. A mother who has to constantly worry about how to get one meal for her children even if that means ferreting for grains in a rat's burrow, cannot begin to think of empowerment of any kind.Her life moves from one meal to another with an occasional thought about what story she would tell her child to lull him to sleep should she not be able to get anything to eat. This is a reality we cannot shy away from. I once again quote Ash in the Belly They scour the harvested fields of the landlords with brooms to garner the gleaning of the stray grains of wheat and paddy... they follow field rats to their burrows and are skilled in scrapping out the grains stolen and stored underground by the rodents...after each weekly market ends, they collect in their sari edges, grain  spilled inadvertently by traders or rotting waste vegetable... they even sift through cow dung for undigested grain. (Ash in the Belly page 6). Maybe the politicians who talk of women's empowerment should read this book before they open their mouth.

The women of India are extraordinary beings who survive in circumstances beyond imagination. The first step to empowering them is to help them move out of the survival mode they are condemned to and give them the dignity they deserve. What will happen after will be nothing short of a miracle. Maybe that is what the 51% so fear!