A silent crusader in rural India: Prema Gopalan’s self-education through empowerment

Prema Gopalan

By Moin Qazi*

Over 26 years ago, on September 30, 1993, Latur district in the Marathwada region of Maharashtra was jolted by an earthquake that left a trail of mass destruction. It was India’s most devastating earthquake of the 20th century that left nearly 10,000 dead. It ravaged and obliterated vast swathes of villages and uprooted multitudes of people.

Today, several thousand women among those severely affected by the tragedy are recognised as transformational leaders. The aftermath of a natural calamity disrupts the entire community’s well-being, from physical infrastructure and economic growth, to mental and social health. How these semi-literate and impoverished women converted adversity into opportunity is a saga of grit and tenacity. The glue that bonded them and provided the necessary impetus for driving a revolution was a passionate and indefatigable social entrepreneur, Prema Gopalan. Schooled and trained in disaster management, she began reconstruction and rehabilitation work among these women and in 1998 formally launched Swayam Shikshan Prayog (SSP) (self-education for empowerment) with a larger and long-term mission of self-empowerment and self-learning.

The crisis and the resulting social mobilisation for rehabilitation and recovery and the way the trauma was transformed into hope gave people the opportunity and impetus for large, community-centered efforts. It nudged them to create models for enhancing people’s resilience against social and economic as well as environmental shocks in order to reduce chronic poverty

The initial success revealed to Prema the potential of these rural women to become planners in local development and governance. Building on their capacities, she steered them through a broad-based development strategy of economic and social empowerment. It helped her conceptualise the broad vision for SSP which lay in promoting processes which are socially inclusive, sustainable and gender- equitable. SSP’s core focus areas are: skill building and entrepreneurship; climate resilient farming; women’s leadership; clean energy; health, water and sanitation.

SSP started out as a not-for-profit, helping bridge the gap between the community and the Government following the temblor. It organized the women from the community to monitor the relief work of the government. In the process it enhanced leadership skills, builds community involvement and generated new opportunities for them. It adapts its model to the unique locale, language, cultural context, and teaching practices of the area, demonstrating a promising approach for building community-specific indigenous interventions

The poor rural women continue to remain on the brink of subsistence due to lack of access to resources, information, services, markets, finance and entitlements. The objective of SSP is to increase the economic opportunities, bargaining power, health security, organizational abilities and legal representation of low income women and promote inclusive, sustainable and integrated community development in these communities. This is achieved by creating the tools, services, and networks they need to break through complex and entrenched situations of poverty and the caprices of the climate. In turn the women are forging relationships, forming peer learning networks, evolving conflict resolution and problem-solving approaches and building resilient communities.

She has steered women into partnering with global and local businesses to set up sustainable last-mile social enterprises and end-user financing for affordable products such as solar lanterns, clean cooking stoves, rechargeable batteries and water filters s that create healthier and safer homes, provide clean energy,  increase productivity, reduce household expenses and provide additional income-generating opportunities.

These women have now become equipped to navigate the challenges posed by unemployment, environmental hazards, gender inequality, gender-based violence, climate change, natural disasters, agriculture, health and sanitation. They also have the negotiating skills to deal with Government, public sector, multilaterals, civil society, business and foundations and have   diversified their ventures, aggregated into value chains and mentored thousands of others to get on the path of entrepreneurship.  SSP’s efforts to enhance leadership skills, build community involvement and foster connections with local groups are making an impact in local communities.

Prema has been widely recognised for her work. She is a recipient of Social Entrepreneur of the Year Award, 2018 from the Schwab Foundation. SSP has received a large number of awards including the Equator Prize, 2017 from UNDP and UNFCCC Momentum for Change Award, 2016 for Communities and Climate Change. She was also one of the 40 awardees who have received the award for Social Innovation Driving Change and Transforming Society at the World Economic Forum’s Sustainable Development Impact Summit (SDI) held in New York on Sept 23, 2019.

The SSP model comprises four ventures: A resilience fund for women-led businesses; a fraternity of 5,000 self-help groups networked through federations; a rural school of entrepreneurship and leadership for women which  provides  business, financial and marketing skills; and a market aggregator that provides warehousing, branding, marketing and distribution services to last-mile business women. The consortium nurtures the value chains and entrepreneurial ecosystems that women need to succeed in remote and opaque markets.

One of the key issues that Prema and her team are targeting is climate change. Climate change is already affecting us all, but the lives of economically vulnerable people are most at risk. It has long term impacts on health, agriculture and food security. Natural disasters, migration, rains, floods, strong winds, high temperatures and droughts are all becoming more common .For protecting our planet; we have to partner with these women because they are the he people who have the most to lose. They have to face the brunt of climate change since they are primary managers of energy, water, food and other essential services.

Many of the villages have no access to the local energy grid, which have forced residents to rely on dirty kerosene, wood and charcoal to meet their lighting and energy needs. These inefficient fuels lead to indoor air pollution .Off-grid living, hinders earning potential also stifles productivity and increases household energy expenditures. Kids cannot study after sunset, leaving them academically disadvantaged. Countless businesses are forced to shutter at sundown, reducing available working hours. All together, these factors perpetuate a vicious cycle of poverty.

Energy is one sector in which necessity and creativity converge to improve lives. Clean energy products dominate social businesses of these women who are selling everything — from solar chargers for mobile phones to more efficient cooking stoves — that can lift a rural household out of extreme poverty. The businesses are leveraging the last-mile network of rural women entrepreneurs for creating awareness on clean energy technologies and access to products and services.

Water and sanitation

Prema is empowering women to build bridges between facilitating policies at the government level and taking ownership at the local level. This work aims to put rural poor women at the centre of decentralized, democratic, basic-service management. SSP’s approach is to empower and reposition rural women as problem solvers and changemakers who can mentor and successfully transfer learning, strategies and replication of innovation to other contexts and across high-impact sectors.

SSP has also helped women build Mahiti Kendras (Knowledge Centres) or community information networks on spaces donated by village administration. Run by the women’s networks, these centers provide women with information, training, and other skills, particularly the ability to look at the problem with new perspectives.

At the civic level, the inherent challenges of rural life were linked to sustenance, clean water and sanitation, as well as preventive health services for women and girls. Decades of research show that no one has a greater stake and interest in water and sanitation than poor women who bear the brunt of both water scarcity and lack of sanitation in their daily lives and on their own bodies. Yet, surprisingly, there are few models in place that have translated this fact into community-based mechanisms

For the ‘water cadre’ to move from passive participants to leaders, we need to enable sustained and dynamic flow of relevant, actionable knowledge, as well as access to experts and mentors for regular interactions to overcome challenges that they face on the ground.

Decentralised water governance and active involvement of women collectives can push the agenda of sustainability, equity, inclusion and social accountability on water use.

Prema is collaborating with the government for promoting community ownership of water supply systems through multiple strategies. It ranges from involving women to voice their demands, from designing of the government policies to grassroots ownership of the entire function, and to ensure a transition. The creation of new forms of water institutions believes not in the retrenchment of the state but rather its involvement in ways that ensure   transparency, accountability, equity and sustainability.

 How is this achieved? 

First, Prema organizes women in collectives–first in self help groups and later in monitoring water and sanitation. These   groups are then clustered under “federations”. These federations are community-owned, with women’s groups as the stakeholders

Second, Prema facilitates active participation by women in gram sabhas (village assemblies) to voice their concerns and demand better services. Women’s groups are also linked to the gram panchayats, where they enlist the support of villagers and gram panchayats for participation in managing water supply systems. This gives women’s groups recognition in their public role as managers and planners, while their abilities to define problems and work out solutions grow and improve. As a result, women feel empowered to address other complex issues around water: exploring possible water saving and low-cost sanitation measures, ;.improving ground water and surface water capacities by recharging water sources; mad  improving water  retention capacity of the land.

Third, Prema is improving income potential by equipping women’s groups with technological skills training that will help them design, build, operate, and maintain water and sanitation systems. It also opens livelihood avenues.  It creates opportunities for women to take up roles like managing community contracts for building storage tanks, toilets, storm water drains, drainage lines and   handling service contracts.

Women undertake technical surveys, building of necessary infrastructure, regular operation and maintenance of the supply system and repairs, water quality and treatment, and source protection and augmentation. Federations equip village women’s teams with skills to undertake service contracts. Federations may also lend venture capital to start innovative enterprises in sanitation. The federations are supported in forging links with banks, investors, state, and market agencies to develop and manage basic services and development projects.

 One-acre farm model

One of the most revolutionary contributions of SSP is in bringing about this shift to sustainable farming and protection of water and natural resources. Men are losing interest in farming but women continue to work the land. These women are now active decision-makers on core issues like growing crops, conserving natural resource and increasing biodiversity

SSP has also pioneered among the region’s women a ‘one-acre farming’ model -an innovative way of practicing climate-resilient agriculture. Instead of the traditional approach of focusing on   water guzzling kharif crops like rice and onion, these women have placed nutritional needs of their families first by growing they  cultivate soybean, chillies and moong. They follow it up with either no rabi crops, or ones with low water requirement like jowar and gram .This way they are helping conserve the environment and health of the people. In climate-threatened areas, marginal farmers growing cash crops are at a greater risk as excess use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides and water-intensive inputs result in a long-term damage to their land, health and the environment.

Under the one-acre model, multiple crops are grown to cope with the caprices of climate and boost, soil fertility, nutritional security, farm biodiversity and income viability. The women use local seeds and sustainable inputs such as bio-pesticides, hydroponics, organic fertilizers and low-cost water conservation techniques like drip irrigation, sprinklers, recharging of bore wells, farm ponds and tree plantation to boost scarce groundwater and improve soil health. This innovative revenue-generating model enables farming to have a sustainable impact on the lives of these families.

The number of households who have become climate-resilient is already statistically significant, but for a wider transformation of Marathwada, many more need to be encouraged to shift to this eco-friendly means of livelihood. Being able to make a living and support oneself is certainly a critical piece of the empowerment puzzle.

Landlessness is the most significant factor upholding female subjugation .There is a large gap between the social and legal recognition of a woman’s claim to land.   Progressive legislation has not helped much in correcting the imbalance. Cultural and traditional biases oppose women’s inheritance of land. However women have used the SSP umbrella to make some headway

Women who traditionally did not own land have been able to convince their spouses to lend them a patch, of their land so that they could work on this bit towards growing organic food crops—vegetables, fruits, and local grains and pulses–staving off hunger for their families.   They grew both seasonal and perennial vegetables such as corn, wheat, peas, sesame, chickpeas peanuts, lentils and fenugreek. The borders of the plot were lined with fruit trees such as guava and pomegranate. A majority now have land deeds in their name

The success of this small experiment, which generated a substantial income, has allowed the male farmer to let his wife use the rows between the sugarcane stalks to plant vegetables such as spinach and tomatoes. Although the results were not too encouraging in the first season, the women persisted and gradually brought their family’s entire farm under diversified organic farming. This represents a small revolution, since women are growing crops by themselves and are using only organic inputs. No small feat for women who less than few ago were struggling to make enough money to keep a roof over their head. It’s inspiring to see not only one woman, but an entire community transformed by this initiative. Economic migration has been reduced, especially amongst women, as they are able to grow vegetables all year round rather than migrating to the city each dry season to find domestic work.  There has been a reduction in hunger, increased food security, and improved health outcomes

Primary healthcare

SSP has also built a support system of village-level networks of entrepreneurs known as sakhis (friends). An innovative intervention is in rural health care. SSP selects and trains women who are landless but have basic education, are interested in health care and community service. These Arogya Sakhis are community members who receive basic training and live and work in the communities they serve. They are equipped with health devices, such as glucometers, blood pressure machines. Along with a mobile tablet, they visit rural women door-to-door to conduct basic medical tests.

“These women conduct a series of preventive tests using mobile health devices, capture the data by using a tablet and upload the results on the cloud server developed by our technology partner,” says Prema. The data is then shared with a doctor, who analyses it and provides a report and prescriptions over the cloud. The Sakhis then guide the patients on the treatment and precautions to be taken. Wherever needed, they are referred to hospitals for further treatment.

Since many villages have scarce medical facilities, the sakhis are also trained to provide medical help related to minor burns, cuts, joint pains and other ailments, for which they charge nominal fees. The movement has now reached deep pockets. There are now 150 Arogya Sakhis who have reached out to more than 500 villages. They present a unique community resource to be deployed to helping people with both physical and mental disorders.

These community-based services ensure enable members living in remote communities to   have access to affordable preventive and primary healthcare in an ecosystem of socioeconomic opportunity. The village health workers provide prenatal care, monitored child immunizations and also initiate self help groups to fund cooperative business enterprises. Any visitor to villages, where these community healthcare models are primary drivers of health awareness, will marvel at the ability of these health workers to connect with and explain things to women.

Their lack of education is not a handicap; it is an advantage. They understand how to reach the people who most need reaching: Illiterate, vulnerable and poor village women. They know how they think and live, because they are one of them. Co-designing co-creating, and co-owning health services is an increasingly effective and scalable path to inclusive and sustainable health outcomes. Putting people and communities in charge of their own healthcare also leads to better outcomes and increased productivity through  leverage of  traditional knowledge and local healing plant material .

The Government, too, has learnt from these initiatives and its public health programmes are modelled around them. The community health workers, including the Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHA) and the Auxiliary Nurse Midwife, are indeed the foundation of our public health care system and have played a central role in its success, thereby reducing maternal and child mortality. ASHAs are central to India’s strategy to improve maternal and child health and are selected by the village they serve.

Women serve critical roles in agricultural and commodity production and in providing familial stability, and their empowerment is crucial to the modern development agenda. Giving women the tools they need to succeed is a requisite to ensuring the ultimate prosperity of their local communities. Prema Gopalan’s pioneering work with women in drought affected areas of Marathwada can serve as an enlightening model for more meaningful and relevant policy discourses.

*Development expert