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From Living Alone With No Income Source, How 150 Himachali Women Became Community Leaders

UNV logoEditor's note: This post is a part of #Restless4Change, a campaign by UN Volunteers and Youth Ki Awaaz to highlight work done by UN Volunteers as part of the Nehru Yuva Kendra Sangathan (NYKS) and National Service Scheme (NSS), across 29 districts in India.

By Mukul Sharma:

In Himachal Pradesh’s Sirmaur district, there are only two major sources of employment – the industrial areas of Paonta Sahib and Kala Amb. Most of the male labourers in the Sirmaur district, including those from Nahan, migrate to these areas in search of contract-based work. This leaves the women to single-handedly look after the entire household without any fixed source of income.

It had always been a dream for me to to be able to join the UN in any branch or department. I used to regularly visit the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) India site looking for an opportunity to work with them.

After visiting a youth class held by the Mahila Mandal in Sirmaur, I was able to get a better understanding of problems faced by locals in the district. So after that, when this opportunity came along to volunteer for the UN, it was perfect for me as I wanted to focus on community development, with a special focus on the youth.

Starting Out

In September 2016, a woman named Anu Sharma (who is now one of the mentors of our core programme,) approached me saying that she was skilled in making pine needle baskets and other handicraft items and introduced me to pine-based products. Her interest helped me  create a programme for training women from Nahan in making pine needle products.

The video below offers a glimpse at the kind of impact this programme has had on the women in Nahan.

Before starting this programme, I was involved with the Nehru Yuva Kendra Sangathan (NYKS), which is an autonomous organisation of the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports. We ran a three-month programme known as the ‘Skill Upgradation Training Programme’ where we tried to impart different skills based on the needs of the community. Our current programme is actually a joint venture of the NYKS, the UNDP and UNV.

For most women, these products were new and this generated a lot of interest. What also helped was the fact that after making these products, they were able to earn sufficient amounts to be saved as pocket money.

Whatever money we earn from the sale of pine baskets, part of it is used as income for the members of the groups and the rest is invested in further developing the skills of the group.

After the initial batch of women had been trained in making pine products, we decided to display them at the at the Saharanpur book festival and on Red Cross day, and the response has been great!

This year, when we exhibited these products at the National Youth Festival in Rohtak, we made around ₹10,000 in six days. These products were also sent to merchants in Delhi, Agra, Dehradun, Mussoorie who have now become regular customers.

The positive response and increased demand of the products gave us more confidence and with the help of the NYKS, we started three-four more training centres.

Building A Self-Sustaining Community

When this program was started, we had only 55 women who were interested in learning this skill. After successfully completing this program, apart from refining their skills, they also got certification from our department. They were also given the offer of becoming trainers and run centres of their choice. About four to five women showed interest and we decided to train them to become master trainers.

As master trainers, these women help others hone their skill of making pine products. Apart from being able to make and sell their own products, they are also paid an additional ₹5000 as honorarium. So they have two sources of income.

At present, we have seven to eight centres located in different pockets of the Sirmaur district.

Today, some of the women working at the centres are also imparting this training in their respective villages. A single master trainer trains 25 women and this year, we have 150 women involved in the programme.

Two such women are Hema and Anu who are now master trainers.

Before the programme, Hema was mostly involved in agriculture activities. Now, she is a leader among her community, she’s committed to teaching her skills to other women and enhance their skills so that they can be self-dependent.

For future sustainability of this programme, I’m developing self-help groups among the women who are part of the programme and I’m also trying to link the groups with district industry centres and banks so that they can pursue their own business directly.

We talk about women’s empowerment in India, and this is where real empowerment is taking place. As I see it, building livelihoods in a manner that suit the needs of women and are tailored to their lives are the key to assisting them in becoming financially independent. With that in mind, I think the women in Nahan have been very successful in empowering themselves and becoming self-sufficient.

As told to Soumadri Banerjee

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