to Women’s Empowerment
is largely held that women all over the world have been made
to suffer discrimination and deprivation of variouskinds since
the beginning of time, that they have all along been denied
even such basic rights as access to literacy and property.
This global concern has steadily grown through the past few
decades and has resulted in efforts to bring women into the
mainstream of life, mainly through socio-economic activities
aimed at empowering them and thus restoring equality between
the concept of women’s empowerment, as it is now understood,
and the movement to achieve it are fairly recent Western phenomena,
India has not escaped their influence. Women’s empowerment
was one of the primary objectives of the Ninth Five Year Plan,
and the Government of India even declared the year 2001 ‘Women’s
Empowerment Year’. Backed by the government, policy planners
and implementers are now concentrating on the task of removing
gender disparities. The Tenth Five Year Plan reflects this
endeavour in a big way. The challenge of making education
and legal and property rights accessible to women is being
met, and steps are being taken to ensure their financial security.
Besides these fundamental rights, reservation of jobs and
seats for women in Parliament, Legislative Assemblies and
gram panchayats have become the burning issues of the day.
Indian Woman: Decline in Her Status
ancient India, however, woman was never an object of pity
- neglected, weak and needing help. The pages of our cultural
history are aglow with ideals like the scholarly Gargi and
Maitreyi, the chaste Sita and Savitri, the devoted Parvati
and that paragon of mothers, Madalasa. Far from being treated
as a ‘commodity’, woman enjoyed the highest respect in society
- that accorded to a ‘mother’. As a matter of fact, she was
looked upon as the veritable representation of Shakti, the
source of all power, while today we are reduced to talking
about empowering her. How strange! Even medieval Indian history
is full of stories of heroic and learned women, not to speak
of women saints.
decline of Indian women’s social status began with the arrival
of foreign invaders. The purdah system that came into being
then was devised with the best of intentions, that of keeping
them from vulgar gaze. But alas, the road to hell is paved
with good intentions! Stopped from stepping out of their houses,
women had to go without education - and that gave birth to
disparity. Illiterate and uneducated, women gradually came
to be looked down upon by men. So great was their suffering
that they began to believe that they were born to suffer.
And things came to such a sorry pass that when a daughter
was born the parents grieved! This was the position of women
in nineteenth-century India.
Indian Woman: Her Rise
a time when some social reformers were still thinking of reintroducing
education for women, Sri Ramakrishna demonstrated the greatness
of women and thus sowed the seeds of women’s empowerment.
He worshipped God as Shakti, accepted a woman as his guru,
devotedly served his mother until her last day and worshipped
his own wife as the Mother Goddess. Not only that, he left
her behind to complete his mission of liberating humanity
from bondage of every kind. Where else will we find a better
example of women’s empowerment? The relationship that existed
between Sri Ramakrishna and Sri Sarada Devi was ideal in all
respects. But it also shows that gender disparities are well
and truly removed only when both men and women are ‘educated’
in the real sense of the word, when both have a sound understanding
of inter-human relationships, and when both strive for spiritual
empowerment aims at equal partnership and joint responsibility,
with family duties distributed equally between man and wife.
However, for the experiment to be successful, at least in
the Indian context, one more vital element needs to be kept
in focus: the entire experiment should be based on an awareness
of the culture and spiritual values of the land. And mothers
being the architects of their children’s lives, their education
has to be given priority. Women are teachers as well as mothers.
As the proverb goes, ‘If you educate a man, you educate only
one person; but if you educate a woman, you educate a whole
was just the conclusion Swami Vivekananda came to after his
travels in the West. There he saw women educated and free,
and he dreamed of bringing education to the women of India.
But his idea of women’s education was slightly different from
the ‘modern’ approach that we see today. Practical that he
was, India’s spiritual traditions formed the basis of his
scheme of education. It was his firm belief that any programme
of education that ignored national ideals was doomed to failure.
Said he: ‘Ideal characters must always be presented before
the view of the girls to imbue them with a devotion to lofty
principles of selflessness. The noble examples of Sita, Savitri,
Damayanti, Lilavati, Khana, and Mira should be brought home
to their minds, and they should be inspired to mould their
own lives in the light of these.’ Obviously, Swamiji’s feet
were firmly planted on the cultural soil of India.
Mission in Women’s Welfare
really do not need to be empowered by men. In one of Swami
Vivekananda’s conversations we come across his strong views
on the issue. He did not think it was possible for men to
solve women’s problems. Their duty lay in providing education
and opportunity to women, and once that was done women would
automatically become capable of looking after themselves.
This has been the Ramakrishna Mission’s basic attitude to
women’s welfare and the philosophy underlying all its activities
in this sphere. Let us now look at the work done by Ramakrishna
Mission Ashrama, Morabadi, Ranchi, one of the Mission’s model
institutions, which has, of late, been giving more attention
to gender sensitization in order to fight rural poverty.
centre was started in 1927 and for the first four decades
of its existence confined itself to some basic public-welfare
work on a humble scale. But severe spells of drought in the
1960s galvanized its monks, who, not remaining contented with
relief work, engaged themselves in serious attempts at evolving
a lasting solution to the problem. It became clear to them
that unless the resource-poor farmers of the area were empowered
with need-based technology supported by group action, they
would never be able to counter similar adverse conditions.
It was by way of fulfilling this requirement that Divyayan
(‘the divine way’), an integrated rural development institute,
was established in 1969. In this story, we shall see how Divyayan’s
integrated approach has been central to its success in securing
economic security and self-respect for the weaker sections
of society, how the formation of its women’s self-help groups,
with their knowledge, effort and skills, have been basic to
strengthening the wider community.
the villages the monks observed that a large number of children,
especially girls, were compelled by circumstances to remain
at home to help their parents, either with domestic chores
or out in the fields. In order that such children may avail
themselves of basic education, the Ashrama started a chain
of night schools and nutrition centers with the help of ex-trainees
of Divyayan. On completion of their course at the night school
the girls were encouraged to join regular schools. Today the
centre runs 70 such rural night schools.
year 2000 brought government recognition. The National Institute
of Open Schooling accredited the Ashrama for its work in providing
Open Basic Education (classes 1 to 8), Academic
Education (secondary and senior secondary levels) and
Vocational Education (secondary and higher secondary
levels). By this time the centre was already running study
centres and conducting examinations for students of classes
1 to 8 in the candidates’ own villages. Till date, 333 students
have benefited from these schools, with 500 more due to appear
for the class 8 examination this year. Numbers aside, it is
the penetration of the Ashrama’s educational programmes that
is noteworthy. A six-year-old girl who was obliged to be with
her jailed mother took the class 3 examination in the jail
itself - and passed! - thanks to the programme’s commitment.
Sarvashiksha Abhiyan (‘mass education drive’) is another important
project. The Ashrama now has 340 Sarvashiksha centres spread
over three blocks of Ranchi district. It is their aim to ensure
that no girl between ages 6 and 14 remains illiterate.
Building for Women
Ashrama had launched its rural development programmes at a
time when basic necessities of life such as food, shelter
and health care, not to speak of education, were difficult
of access to people of the surrounding areas. The condition
of women was appalling, as they were quite neglected. Ideas
like providing women opportunities for skill transformation,
and such other services - indispensible necessities in the
development process of a community - were still undreamt of.
Though the centre saw that the quality of life of the womenfolk
needed to be improved on a priority basis, it was difficult
to address the problem forthwith. Since it had adopted an
agriculture-oriented development approach, emphasis was placed
on disseminating technology mostly among the menfolk. However,
it soon made up for lost time.
in 1998, I visited Obar village to have an interaction with
the farmers. That day a few young women met me and expressed
their grievances. Why were all the activities in the villages
being done only for men? Women wanted something to be done
for them too - so that they too could do something for the
community in turn! Impressed by their enthusiasm and eagerness,
I agreed to do something to mobilize the women through formation
of self-help groups. In course of time, arrangements were
also made to train womenfolk in bee-keeping, incense-stick
making, towel weaving, tailoring, mushroom cultivation, poultry-farming
2001, the Swashakti Project, assisted by the International
Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the World Bank
through the Jharkhand Women’s Development Society and later
through the Project for Formation of Self-Help Groups assisted
by the Council for Advancement of People's Action in Rural
Technology (CAPART), was launched. It was committed to empowering
women in the area adopted by the Ashrama. SHGs were formed
to strengthen entrepreneurial skills among marginalized women
and empower them in order to sustain group ventures for micro
enterprises. The idea was to eventually improve their economic
and social status.
this plan, like-minded women living below the poverty line
come together to discuss their common problems and try to
solve them by forming an SHG. Despite their low-income/low-saving
capacity, they make voluntary contributions to a common fund
on a regular basis. This has enabled them to free themselves
from dependence on and exploitation by private finance agencies;
for them, life in perpetual debt is over. Not only that, these
groups now use their pooled resources to make small interest-bearing
loans to their members to meet their emergent needs, or to
other income-generating programmes. Linkages are also set
up with banks to give loans to SHGs in certain multiples at
market interest rates.
this demands a good deal of training (called ‘capacity building’)
for members. Between January and September 2002, 691 members
in 24 batches were trained by the Ashrama in leadership, conduct
of group proceedings, panchayati raj, record-keeping and bookkeeping.
The number of these SHGs has now reached 285.
Impact of SHGs
than helping develop micro-saving, micro-credit and micro-enterprise
habits, the SHG methodology has proved to be a holistic approach.
Its success has brought about tremendous change in women’s
outlook at grass-roots level. After undergoing the above-described
training in capacity building, their awareness of social issues
has increased, they have grown in self-confidence and decision-making
ability, and they are also conscious of their social responsibilities.
In just five years these women, mostly tribals, have outgrown
their earlier attitudes. They are now bold enough to speak
for themselves and to place their rightful demands before
the concerned government officials. They are conscious of
their strength and dignity. In short, they are now a voice
to reckon with.
is the proof. In a recent interactive meeting, an SHG member
revealed: ‘Before joining the group we used to feel very lonely
and distressed, but now we are many and united. We can rely
on the group in times of emotional or financial crises. It
steps in like a family to help us out. My husband used to
beat me after consuming alcohol. One day I told him I would
disclose it to our group. He has given up drinking since then
and behaves well with me now. We have gained self-dignity
within the family as well as in society.’
their course in capacity building, SHG members are given income-generation
training in various skills. Different SHGs are engaged in
different activities. As of now, 70 groups are engaged in
diverse self-reliance projects like incense-stick rolling
(5), pisciculture (7), mushroom cultivation (11), cattle
breeding (14), poultry and dairy farming (8), vermi-compost
making (8), soap making (3), weaving (3), tailoring (3), seed
multiplication (2) and food processing (6).
Ashrama has plans for teaching some more skills in the near
future. These include cane-work, health work, integrated pest
management, rice milling, spice grinding, lac production and
Incense-stick rolling: A 10-member SHG that began as
a small production unit overcame marketing problems by manufacturing
according to demand and has itself become a training centre
Pisciculture: Divyayan has constructed over 20 tanks
in its adopted villages in order to introduce fish breeding
based on scientifically proven techniques. The venture has
been so problem-free and lucrative that four SHGs have even
taken tanks on lease from the government.
Poultry farming: What began on an individual basis
has now grown into a common phenomenon. Four SHGs, each member
of the groups owning 10 birds of the special Divyayan Red
breed, have earned a net profit of Rs 20,295.
Food processing: An abundance of fruits and vegetables
in Jharkhand encourages members of Mahila Swayam Sahayata
Samuh to receive training in horticultural food processing.
They have now started producing a variety of pickles, sauces
Weaving: On passing a six-week intensive course at
Divyayan, 15 women linked up with Development of Women and
Children in Rural Areas (DWCRA) and obtained Rs 25,000 as
running capital for opening a weaving centre. District Rural
Development Agency (DRDA), Ranchi, sanctioned Rs 3,77,400
towards installation of looms and a workshed.
Non-conventional-energy appliance repairing: A recent
training programme for repairing solar lanterns, driers and
cookers drew enthusiastic response.
in Health Care
activities of the SHGs are not restricted to the economic
aspect of welfare. Regular health camps are organized
exclusively for women where treatment and medicines are given
free of charge. The Ashrama has also formed village health
committees and trained health workers to conduct health programmes
for tuberculosis, malaria and leprosy control. A six-month
accupressure course was organized at Divyayan, as a
result of which 146 girls received training in this science.
Village women are quite taken with this novel, low-cost therapy.
Basis of Empowerment
empowerment of women, however, lies in helping them unfold
the spiritual aspect of their personality, build up their
character and manifest their purity and motherhood. It is
these that make up the character of the ideal Indian woman;
earning capacity and public status are secondary. All women
are parts of the same infinite divine Power, and hence divine.
Fully realizing the importance and urgency of the uplift of
women, if we are to save our cultural traditions and spiritual
values and counter the negative trends that are now affecting
our body politic, Ramakrishna Mission Ashrama, Morabadi, Ranchi,
has been putting in much effort to promote spiritual values
in rural women’s lives. It conducts regular conventions for
them to make them aware of their true power. SHGs too organize
cultural and value-orientation programmes and other meetings
on their own for their all-round development. Recently, one
such conference was attended by 1700 members.
is complete only when a given community takes full control
of its own development and the implementing agency, much like
a catalytic agent, remains in the background after initiating
the process of change. This is exactly what the Ashrama does:
once the machinery it has set up is in working order, it hands
over the management of affairs to the grass-root organization
or SHG, and itself remains in the background to provide motivation
and guidance from time to time.
Swami Vivekananda said, ‘Our duty is to put the chemicals
together, the crystallisation will come through God's laws.
Let us put ideas into their heads, and they will do the rest.’