Our world is beset by seemingly unconquerable challenges—food insecurity, unsustainable livelihoods and sparse incomes. On one hand, the governments, UN and organisations of every size and type are pouring in resources to realise scalable solutions, and on the other, media projections and studies fail to capture the everyday challenges that compel rural women to innovate and find solutions as they wage an incessant battle just to ensure food, fuel, fodder and water for their families.
Rural women are the human face of poverty and development. They figure as a statistic—women comprise 70% of all agricultural workforce and the number seems to be growing. They toil on their farms, but lack access to land titles and are, therefore, not recognised as farmers. This, in turn, denies them access to updated farm technology, training, finance and markets. And yet, if India’s farmers have to double their incomes, rural women need to be counted as farmers and mass-level job-creators.
It’s time for the world to view rural women for who they really are—as the new generation of dynamic entrepreneurs, job-creators and economy drivers, committed to bringing a change in their communities.
Who are they? They are ordinary women who are managing their farms, enterprises and households. As women in poor and marginal farmer families whose lives are directly impacted by climate change, their approach is remarkably innovative, guided by local wisdom, and shows a deep appreciation of ground reality. Today, more than two decades after a disastrous earthquake in Maharashtra nearly wiped out their lives, several hundreds among them are recognised as transformational leaders, as they have broken not only their boundaries, taken stances, dreamt the impossible and shattered the metaphorical glass ceiling.
So, what is their story, and what are the lessons we can learn from the stories of these extraordinary women?
Resilient women create resilient communities, especially in areas impacted by climate change: In the aftermath of the earthquake, there was destruction all around. As reconstruction began, the affected women said, “Crisis can either push us back or forward … if we are to rebuild our lives, we have to step out of our homes.”
The work in disaster-hit areas following earthquakes in Latur (1993), Bhuj (2001), tsunami in Tamil Nadu (2004), floods in Bihar (2009) and drought in Marathwada (2013-14) taught that disasters break walls built by caste, religion, social and cultural norms for women.
‘Swayam’ (self-empowerment) and ‘shikshan’ (self-learning) go hand in hand: What is it that they learn? Building resilient communities in flood and cyclone-hit regions, problem-solving and forging relationships, forming peer learning networks are all 21st century skills that have helped women create their own ecosystems of support.
When women learn and move forward, they leave no one behind: These leaders take other women along and create powerful peer learning networks for sharing information and ideas. In the last many years, thousands of women are part of these networks, and as organic farmers and social entrepreneurs, they, in turn, have impacted millions of people in low-income communities. Across the suicide-ridden backward districts of Marathwada, these women have carved out many pathways by walking the talk, for others to follow.
When women lead change, they come up with unconventional solutions: In water-scarce areas, where men would have voted for water for their farms, women have fought successfully for drinking water, thereby choosing family, safe water and health over water-guzzling crops.
Women from marginal farmer families in Maharashtra have pioneered an innovative ‘one-acre farming’ model to keep their farms and feed their families. What did they do? They said ‘no’ to cash crops and ‘yes’ to food crops. Demanding a parcel of land from their families, they began planting 7-10 types of organic food crops—staving off hunger for their families and help survive the last two years of drought across Marathwada.
Far from being passive beneficiaries, women leaders meet corporates and local governments on their own terms: Take the case of Kamal Kumbhar from Tuljapur (Osmanabad). She overcame personal crisis, and with her network of 3,000 women entrepreneurs has been supplying high-quality poultry, organic manure and green products to agencies for the past three years. Others like Kamal are meeting high-volume demands after successfully negotiating fair terms. “Rural women start small businesses, but they are never recognised as they don’t keep sales records, have no financial or business plan. I help these women to start their business, learn skills and go to markets. My dream is to inspire and create 10,000 micro-entrepreneur women’s network by 2018,” says Kamal. She received the prestigious Women Transforming India 2017 award by the NITI Aayog with the UN in India and MyGov and Woman of Excellence by FICCI Ladies Wing (2018).
There is another example of how poor women think from abundance. As large corporations working in clean energy and rural women came together to review a range of products, women entrepreneurs at the last-mile shared valuable feedback on how solar energy works for many, but cooling devices don’t work in really hot climate. Their holistic viewpoint saved millions marked for research by companies that had plans to sell new lines of products, yet untested in rural markets in India.
And the learning doesn’t stop here.
More than two decades after the disastrous earthquake, one has come a long way but women are still not recognised as decision-makers in their own right—they are seen as helpers and workers. They are without land, property or assets in their name, and have no savings or security to speak of. Yet one can be optimistic about our collective future because grassroots women leaders are gradually being recognised and supported. As enabling organisations and individuals, our role is to give unconditional support to these extraordinary women to pursue their passion and priorities. Looking into the future, one can see these powerful change maker networks evolving into a “Grassroots Women’s University,” where women are both teachers and mentors.
By- Prema Gopalan, the author is founder & executive director, Swayam Shikshan Prayog, a learning and development organisation that empowers grassroots women. Views are personal