Voices from the Grassroots: Empowering Rural Women for Sustainable Development

Armene Modi

Paper presented at the Knowledge Globalization Conference: 2012

Pune, India January 2012

Armene Modi
Ashta No Kai


Women are increasingly making more of an impact than men in rural India. The paper will share the initiatives taken by Ashta No Kai, an NGO working in a rural setting to address gender issues and empower women. It will demonstrate how using pro-poor, pro-women strategies can lead to social transformation. Practical and simple poverty alleviation innovations that the NGO has used to overcome the challenges of gender inequity including the Self-Help Group initiative will be elaborated upon. The focus will be to show how these initiatives have impacted women and assisted them in making the transition from passive acceptance of their fate to becoming vocal and active partners in their own development. Finally, suggestions will be offered for a more effective role that industry can play in bringing about sustainable development that is oriented towards the needs of the population being served.


Women’s empowerment, although it still has miles to go, has certainly come a long way. Despite gender equality seeming a far from attainable goal, the winds of change are blowing, slowly but surely, in rural India. Millions of poor illiterate women are spearheading a silent revolution, the Self-Help Group movement, which has proven to be an effective poverty alleviation intervention in enabling marginalized women to become economically independent. Thanks to progressive laws such as the 73rd Amendment, more than one million women are participating in local governance and development in India’s 600,000 villages. Rural women are starting to assert themselves, challenging deep rooted patriarchal practices and beginning to negotiate new roles and opportunities for themselves. With a new-found confidence, marginalized rural women are gaining a voice and a visibility both at home, and in their communities. They are increasingly becoming aware of their rights and demanding not only basic needs but also a share in household and community resources.

Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister realized that “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”. This was decades before national and international organizations such as the United Nations and the World Bank put women’s empowerment high on their agendas as the key to sustainable development and poverty alleviation. According to Gita Sen and Caren Grown, it is women “who constitute the majority of poor; the underemployed and the economically and socially disadvantaged in most societies” (Sen and Grown, 1987, p. 25). Amartya Sen’s apt definition of poverty as “capability deprivation” clearly indicates that poverty is not just leading a life of impoverishment, but a very real lack of access to economic and other resources and opportunities for people to improve the quality of their lives (Dreze and Sen 1999, p.11). Poor women also suffer from the additional burdens imposed by gender based hierarchy and subordination. Gender discrimination hence, coupled with illiteracy and a lack of opportunities only drags women deeper into a cycle of poverty and deprivation.

For several decades now, Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have been playing a pivotal role in linking the needs and concerns of women to all critical issues on local, regional, national and global agendas. They have made significant inroads towards addressing issues of gender inequity while advancing women’s empowerment and human rights. Their efforts at the grassroots level towards poverty alleviation and social justice have provided poor women with effective economic and social empowerment strategies to overcome and combat the gender marginalization they face on a daily basis. Despite the many challenges they have had to face in their efforts to empower women, NGOs have helped bring about an environment of positive change for millions of poor women by enhancing their understanding of the patriarchal system that has exploited them and deprived them of their rights for centuries.

What is Empowerment?

It would be worthwhile here to consider what constitutes empowerment; a key factor in transforming the status and position of women in society to generate long-lasting social change. According to Kabeer, it is “The expansion in people’s ability to make strategic life choices in a context where this ability was previously denied to them” ( Kabeer 2001). UNDP’s Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM) focuses on political power or decision-making, education and health as the three variables of empowerment. Kishor feels that variables such as education and employment are “enabling factors” or “sources of empowerment” rather than empowerment itself  (Kishor 2000a). Stromquist emphasizes the psychological component to women’s empowerment which “includes the development of feelings that women can act at personal and societal levels to improve their condition as well as the formation of the belief that they can succeed in their change efforts”.  She stresses that the psychological component while important, needs to be strengthened with economic resources (Stromquist 1990 pp 14-15).  Stromquist also urges empowerment programs to take into consideration women’s needs and to go beyond “nutrition, health and family planning and move into consciousness raising and mobilization” (Stromquist 1990 p. 107). It is clear then that empowerment of women involves a host of factors including women’s understanding of their subordinate condition and its root causes; as well as economic opportunity, social equality, and personal rights.

Ashta No Kai (For a Better Tomorrow)  

The paper will now shed light on the initiatives taken by Ashta No Kai (ANK), a small community based grassroots organization working in 10 villages of Pune District to demonstrate how using pro-poor, pro-women strategies can lead to social transformation for rural women. ANK started more than a decade ago with the vision of empowering and improving the quality of life for marginalized women and girls in India’s underdeveloped rural areas. The project’s mission was to meet rural women’s multi-dimensional needs by increasing education, training and health investments for women in rural areas. ANK promoted women’s economic self-reliance by introducing women-friendly credit systems and gave poor rural women access to information, opportunities, and choices to help them make a better world for themselves. 

Project Area:

The project area is spread over 10 drought prone villages and hamlets located in the interior of Shirur Taluka (County) at a distance of 55 to 70 kilometers from Pune along the Pune-Ahmednagar highway, with an approximate population of 15,000 (male: 7663 and female: 7329). The villages, in sharp contrast to the developed industrialized cities on their fringes, are agrarian, economically marginalized, and lack basic infrastructure, such as adequate and clean water supply, electricity, basic health care facilities, and good roads. A low ground water table further affects crop cultivation. A typical village consists of a central cluster of houses, surrounded by many satellite hamlet settlements, which are two to five kilometers away. Accessibility to many hamlets is poor due to lack of transportation and bad roads. At the time that the NGO initiated its work in the villages of Shirur Taluka, the status of women was low. Gender bias, poverty, illiteracy, lack of job opportunities, as well as social traditions and superstitions continued to hamper women’s progress and affect the quality of their lives.

Literacy Program:

According to the World Bank, literacy education is one of the best investments a country can make for its future growth and welfare (United Nations, 1980). Literacy initiatives were therefore given the highest priority when ANK started its work in the villages in 1999. An initial survey conducted in the project area in 1998 indicated that there was a high level of illiteracy among women; 54% as compared with 23% for men. ANK began its literacy campaign by establishing 14 literacy centers in its target villages with approximately twenty-five students in each center. The literacy program had a grassroots approach involving women in the planning and implementation of the project, providing content that was relevant to their lives, and conducting the learning through an interactive and democratic process. By 2001, a study by ANK of 170 learners showed that 37% of women became functionally literate after one year of enrolling in literacy classes. After a few years though, the novelty of ANK’s approach to literacy wore off and fewer women participated in the classes. ANK then developed different approaches to keep the women engaged. Some of these modules included using state-of-the-art computer software to teach literacy, paying daily wages to encourage women to attend class, giving awards to Self Help Groups for 100% literacy among members and setting up “curtain libraries” in women’s homes. The “Each One Teach One” model was also availed of with younger children teaching their mothers. By 2004, 75% of women in the target villages could sign their names, no small achievement for women who had previously never held a pen in their hands.

The promotion and achievement of literacy among adult women in its target villages was the biggest challenge ANK faced since its inception. Despite the fact that the program used a bottom-up approach involving women in the entire process, it failed to reach its targets. ANK did manage to help some women make small strides towards functional, and for some emerging literacy, but it was a struggle. While many women realized the long term benefits of being able to read and write, their need for literacy paled in comparison to the immediate necessities of their daily life. ANK then launched an oral literacy campaign building on the oral tradition of storytelling in villages. The first initiative that provided legal literacy informing women about their rights and familiarizing them with laws concerning them proved to be very effective. The local ILS Law College volunteered the services of their staff and students. Boosted with the success of the program and the large numbers of women who attended, ANK continued to provide oral literacy on many critical issues related to women’s everyday life conducting workshops on gender equity, health, nutrition, and sanitation, among others. These workshops where women gathered away from their daily grind helped to not only provide information about vital issues for the women but also promoted unity and a sense of sharing and solidarity.

Bicycle Bank:

When the project could not make the inroads into literacy for adult women that it had hoped for, ANK decided to shift its focus to the education of the girl child. For the younger generation, education is a vital key to development as it is the educated girl of today who becomes the empowered woman of tomorrow. It has been said “When you educate a man, you educate just one individual, but when you educate a woman, you educate an entire family”. The ripple effect of one educated woman on her family and those around her is far reaching. Providing education and job skills to women can empower them to overcome their poverty and helplessness. An educated woman is more likely to ensure that all her children, including her daughters, receive an education. She will perhaps be not only more attentive to her own family’s health and hygiene, but also to the living conditions in her surrounding neighbourhood. More importantly, the acquiring of some skill will enable her to bring in an additional income to the family.

Many of the girls in ANK’s target villages lived over four to eight kilometers away from the nearest high school, preventing them from continuing their education beyond the 7thstandard.  In efforts to curb these drop-out rates, ANK initiated a Bicycle Bank project in 2001 providing girls with bicycles to attend high school. Thanks to the 900 bicycles donated to village girls, the enrollment rate for girls in ANK village high schools is at 100% today compared to the national dropout rate for girls of 41% according to the 2011 census. The Bicycle Bank program proved extremely effective as a revolutionary model in the field of development for the education of the rural girl child. Besides being replicated, it was featured on national and international television programs and in the media. The simple bicycle thus became the wheels of change for village girls, preventing early marriages, arresting dropout rates while encouraging them to stay in school and complete their education.

With the increased enrollment of young girls in high schools, ANK was further able to assist in the campaign for equal education by providing scholarships to 450 girls to date to continue their education beyond high school. Village girls are now venturing into fields like pharmacy, computer applications and electronics and automobile engineering. Moreover, recognizing that one of the other major hurdles for girls going to school was the lack of toilets, ANK quickly stepped in to provide toilets for all its village high schools. Furthermore, with increasing incidences of violence against women, ANK introduced Karate classes for adolescent girls to learn self-defense techniques.

ANK also initiated Kishori Mandals, weekly workshops for adolescent girls to build their self-confidence by giving them inputs in life skills and information on topics they would not readily receive at home or in their school curriculum. The workshops raised awareness about educational, social, health and legal issues and were conducted by empowered grassroots workers who became role models for the girls. Recognizing that women’s empowerment and equality cannot be achieved just through the efforts of women alone, and that it required male support and behavior change among both men and women, this year, the empowerment activities for adolescent girls were extended to include adolescent boys as well. These workshops focus on raising awareness of gender bias and involve boys in a better understanding of their capabilities and roles in promoting a more gender equitable and just society.

Thanks to the Kishori Mandals, more young girls have become aware of laws relating to them and have opposed customs like dowry and early marriages. What is most heartening is a visible increase in their self-confidence and the numbers of young girls opting for higher education in fields that their mothers could never have dreamed of. ANK’s initiatives for the girl child have helped to promote her education, improve her social status, prepare her for better motherhood, and ultimately develop a confident assertive rural girl who can contribute her share and become an active partner in village development.

Dairy Cooperatives:

Since its target villages lacked skill or vocational training facilities as well as job opportunities, ANK initiated many vocational training programs in tailoring, embroidery, candle-making, etc., for the women hoping it would encourage them to establish their own small businesses. The women were not able to sell their products however, mostly due to their poor quality and the lack of a ready market for them. ANK then set up Dairy Cooperatives in two villages to provide rural women with sustainable livelihood opportunities since they already possessed the skills required to make them a success. The Dairy Cooperatives transformed the lives of rural women by enabling them to become economically independent and self-reliant. Rural women took over the dairy management and running of the entire set up on their own, thereby furthering their ownership of the business. This was one more step towards their own empowerment – promoting a higher status for women as managers and income generators for the village economy. Members of the cooperative are proud that they can earn Rs. 3,000 to Rs. 7,000 to add to their monthly income just from the sale of milk.

Self-Help Groups

ANK made it its mission to create and strengthen pathways for women to ignite and sustain their own development within the village through financial empowerment and raising their awareness of gender inequity. It hoped its interventions would enable them to change the vicious cycle of poverty, debt, ill-health and dependency which characterized their lives. In the early stages of ANK’s work, village women felt that the main hindrance to development was access to capital and income-generating activities. With that in mind, ANK began to organize women into the micro-credit model of voluntary savings and loan collectives called Self-Help Groups (SHGs). ANK helped establish over 125 SHGs in its 10 villages. Poor women with no collateral on an individual level were now able to access credit by collectively pooling whatever little savings they had for emergencies or to undertake income-generating activities without having to pay high interest to money lenders. It is important to point out that ANK merely acted as a catalyst in setting up the SHGs which are now run entirely by village women and act as the backbone for the majority of ANK activities. 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 the repayment schedule. This enabled poor and illiterate women to have opportunities to make decisions and gain individual strength as part of a group. 

Impact of SHGs:

It would be worthwhile here to mention the positive impact the SHG’s anti-poverty agenda had on women at a personal level. Besides an improvement in the financial status of households, individual members saved on average Rs 15,000-25,000 – a significant amount for rural women. Access to credit enabled women to undertake income generating activities which brought in additional family income ranging from Rs.1,000 to Rs. 3,000 monthly. The increase in income was spent on better nutrition and education of children and on the health care for the family.

One of the major issues women faced in ANK villages was alcoholism, which results in a drain on household finances, impaired health and often, domestic violence. With strength and persistence, village women mobilized to force the closure of illicit liquor dens within their villages. Women gained a new confidence by staging protest rallies, and lobbying the police and district officers to do their job. In January 2004, women of Karanjawane village threatened to go on a hunger strike unless a water project sanctioned years ago was implemented.  To address the dire water shortage in Sone Sanghvi, village women along with their men folk recharged 15 wells and helped build water tanks to promote water harvesting. In Parodi, women in 2006 demanded that a Rs. 3,600,000 road project that was sanctioned in 2000 by the District be built. In September 2006, ANK mobilized women in Khandale village to bring pressure on police officials to register a complaint – which the latter were reluctant to do at first – against two alleged perpetrators who had raped and murdered a young girl in the village.

SHGs clearly demonstrated women’s capacity to organize and bring about meaningful change. In addition to providing a platform for economic empowerment, the SHGs acted as a pivotal place for social justice to occur. Besides giving women easy access to credit and encouraging them to save, women began to participate in issues that affected them. They became active in village affairs, stood for local elections and took collective action to address social and community issues. Village women began to actively participate inGram Sabhas (village assemblies) and demand their entitlements. They led campaigns against social maladies such as alcoholism, early marriages and infrastructure problems like water shortages, lack of toilets and bad roads.

Empowerment Survey:

An informal survey conducted to assess the level of empowerment the women had achieved based on the empowerment indicators suggested by Hashemi, Schuler and Riley (1996) were revealing. The women were queried on four of the empowerment indicators: mobility, ability to make small and large purchases, involvement in major household decisions and relative freedom from domination within the family. A majority of women reported that prior to the NGO’s presence they were not allowed to leave the four walls of their home except to fetch water, but now had relative freedom to move around in the village. They were still however, not permitted to travel outside its confines without their husband’s consent. They expressed great pride in having control over both their savings as well as the loans they took from their SHGs. Most women were able to make both small and large purchases on their own without needing to consult their husbands. The husbands often consulted their wives when making large purchases as they needed their help to secure loans from their SHGs for them. Women’s involvement in major household decisions was limited. For example, it was men who decided when and whom their daughters would marry. Most women believed that their ability to contribute to the family income and access loans had considerably improved their position in the family. The women also reported that their husbands in general supported their involvement and attendance at ANK programs largely because they felt they were also the beneficiaries.

As is evident from the initiatives described above, when women achieve economic freedom they gain a greater sense of dignity, a greater sense of self, and a vision of the future. Their self-awareness, knowledge, and self-confidence increases, enabling them to participate more fully in community life.  More importantly, there is a positive change in their social status and they command greater respect within their households and extended families. They can resist violence and maltreatment and negotiate a more equitable division of responsibilities in the home. Financial freedom for women also translates into an improved standard of living for families and better education for children, especially girl children. Ultimately, economic empowerment leads not just to the fulfillment of basic needs but also gives women more choices and greater control over their lives.

The initiatives of Ashta No Kai had made a positive difference to the lives of the many women it had touched. The combination of added financial autonomy and increased confidence levels gave rural women a significant voice in their communities. Voices of village women that were once silent and passive now become vocal. ANK assisted women in search of their own voices to overcome their “culture of silence” (Freire 1970), and make the transition from passive acceptance of their fate to becoming vocal and active partners in the development of their communities. These voices continue to grow and be heard as younger generations of women become active partners in their own development, realizing even more, the importance of education, literacy and financial independence as the means to empowerment.

Role of Corporates in Sustainable Development:

What role can Corporates play in promoting sustainable development? At the recent UN campaign for Rio+20 Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon emphasized that “Sustainable development is not a luxury, it is an imperative”. He urged all sectors of society to engage in developing new ideas and approaches to promote a sustainable future of social and economic transformation that could provide basic needs for all. It is in the enlightened self-interest of all, the public as well as the private sector, to participate in nation building by focusing on inclusive growth and addressing in particular, the needs and concerns of people at the bottom of the pyramid. This is vital since despite India’s economic boom, the anticipated trickle-down effect has not come about, and, in fact, the gap between rich and poor keeps increasing.

Corporates can make a positive social impact to sustainable development by playing a lead role in providing innovative solutions to many social challenges. Effective long-term meaningful and sustainable partnerships between Corporates and NGOs can unleash powerful forces for good and fast track India’s social development. Companies can help NGOs develop a business based approach to the management of their projects, and address a variety of community needs by providing funding, resources, manpower, managerial skill and expertise. Corporates can hence create both business and social value; while making profit they can also help to transform lives and address a variety of community needs.

Corporate Social Responsibility:

Although corporate philanthropy is now popularly referred to as  ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’ (CSR), it has been around for more than a hundred years in India with groups like the Tatas, Birlas etc., having contributed enormously towards social and national development. Gandhi endorsed the concept of “Trusteeship” to reduce economic inequality. He believed that, no matter how much money we have earned, we should regard ourselves as trustees, holding this money for the welfare of all”. While many corporates and multinationals have contributed greatly to social change, most CSR initiatives still lack genuine corporate commitment and a clear focus. They are oftennothing more than public relations exercises to enhance the reputation of the company or build its brand rather than genuine attempts at addressing social needs.

The experiences of ANK as documented in this paper can provide some learnings to Corporates implementing their own CSR programs. For programs to work effectively they should be need based and use a bottom up approach. Making people stakeholders and partners in their own development goes a long way in ensuring the success of any social intervention. Moreover, setting a time frame for all projects motivates beneficiaries to become self-reliant and independent and helps to sustain the activities. Programs initiated at the grassroots need ultimately to enable people to take their destiny in their own hands. 


It is important to remind ourselves that issues of gender discrimination and poverty are not problems of one country or another, but global issues which need global solutions. Global resources must be fairly shared so that all people regardless of gender, age, disability, class, caste, religion, nationality or ethnic background can lead a decent life. Some 20% of the world’s 7 billion people cannot continue to consume most of the world’s resources, while millions continue to live in or near poverty – destitute, unemployed, homeless and malnourished.

People have a right to an equitable share in the world’s resources and to make decisions about their own development. The denial of such rights is at the heart of poverty and suffering. Civil society, including corporates and NGOs can, and must play a positive and creative role by partnering with poor people, particularly poor women, to empower them and provide them with opportunities to build lives of human dignity and self-reliance. Investing in poor and marginalized women by helping them to realize their full potential and partnering with them as full and equal participants on all levels is integral to successful economic and social development.


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