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Empowering Indian Women Needs Innovation – And Social Enterprises Are Showing The Way

As Georgia O’Keeffe once said, “To create one’s own world takes courage.” Against the backdrop of a male-dominated society, this aphorism takes on a greater significance for Indian women looking for means to earn a livelihood. Across India, the gulf between men’s and women’s average rates of labour force participation is startling.

1. According to the World Bank, 79% of men as compared to only 27% of women are a part of the workforce in India.

2. This places India in 120th position among 131 nations in a World Bank report, when it comes to the participation of women in the workforce. What’s more? Participation levels have been on the decline since 2005.

3. Out of 323 total executive directorship positions (generally considered as a prerequisite for becoming CEOs) on the Bombay Stock Exchange 100, only eight are held by women.

A recent study by the British Council sheds some light on the matter. It found that in India, “concerns about women’s safety are strong and often genuine while flexibility, availability of childcare and adequate pay are important given social norms that require women to reconcile work with household duties.” Although tensions between a woman’s role in her life at home and work are not endemic to India, the problem is especially damaging in a country where a conception like child-rearing being the sole domain of women has been deeply embedded in many minds. There is considerable social and cultural pressure forcing Indian women to remain at home.

Businesswoman Anu Aga adds, “There is a tendency to give greater importance to a man’s job than a woman’s job in India. So, companies are not willing to make special allowances to integrate women after they take a break for becoming mothers.” For women in low-income families, the situation is particularly grave, as their inability to find employment both exacerbates and is exacerbated by their financial conditions. Many do not have the educational background or requisite skills to pursue employment in other areas and are therefore limited to household work. Financial standing also has considerable implications in the social context. This is because self-reliance provides women with more decision-making authority within their families and communities.

Stunted by cultural norms (in a society that frequently sees women as simply homemakers, cleaners, mothers, daughters, and wives) and a lack of financial independence, women in low-income communities are ill-disposed to break the cycle of their poverty. Fortunately, there is reason for optimism. Great strides are being made in the realm of women’s empowerment, with social enterprises leading that charge.

The social enterprise strategy combines a social mission with its commercial activities – a trait that sets it apart from traditional non-profits. The self-sustaining nature of this hybrid organisational structure has made it an increasingly attractive model.

AfterTaste, Chindi, and Iwasasari are three social enterprises in India (among the many) working towards women’s empowerment. These organisations share the common goal of enabling disadvantaged Indian women by providing them opportunities to earn an income as artisans, and assisting the development of skills necessary for financial independence. In doing so, these organisations are also shattering social barriers for women with little education and formal training.

Each of these social enterprises leverages a unique element to empower women:

1. Space: Chindi creates a safe space for women to channel the skills they already possess (sewing, knitting, embroidering) to earn an income. A positive work environment is a crucial factor in encouraging participation in the labour force.

2. Art: “Art is such a strong medium,” says AfterTaste founder, Shalini Datta. During a fellowship at Teach for India, she recognised the power of the arts to inspire and engage. Having created the products from scratch by themselves, women are the agents of their own lives.

3. Fashion: ‘Upcycling’ reflects much of the spirit of social enterprise, as the practice’s focus on sustainability is at the heart of its business model. This idea of sustainability also resonates symbolically for Iwasasari’s mission to help women earn a recurring income.

In the last few years, the budding social enterprise industry has greatly contributed to efforts in women’s empowerment. While the industry is still fairly young, it should also be viewed as holding tremendous potential for transforming the lives of women all over the world. In India, approximately 33% of the total number of social enterprises are focused on women’s issues. The emerging sector is not only a source of employment for many women, it is also a mechanism of empowerment in itself. In fact, according to the British Council survey, 75% women reported having an increased sense of self-worth after starting a social enterprise, while 64% of them stated that their confidence had also spiked.

When The Guardian asked a panel how we can encourage more women to work in the space, those in the industry agreed that it was all about creating awareness and supporting education. For Ogunte CIC founder, Servane Mouazan, it is important to “encourage women to think about the journey ahead and the potential for women to climb up leadership roles and be in paid executive roles. A large space given to mentoring and ‘sponsorship’ within organisations also helps.”

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        An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

        Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

        Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

        The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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        Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

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        Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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        MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

        With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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        A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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        A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

        As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

        Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

        Find out more about her campaign here.

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        A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

        A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

        Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

        A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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