Empower Women, Empower The World: How The Desai Foundation Is Elevating Lives In Rural Gujarat

Teresa Bigelow

In India, it’s estimated that more than 360 million people are living below the poverty line, with women leading 35% of those households. And while study after study has shown that women put 90% of their income back into their families and communities, women in India still represent only 24% of the workforce.

A recent visit to Gujarat prompted a very real understanding of something I had read about, and intellectually understood, but had never experienced in person. That is, if even a small portion of impoverished women in the world were given an opportunity to overcome their circumstances, we could put a massive dent in the number of people living in poverty — or maybe even eradicate poverty all together.

In Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, author and activist Sheryl WuDunn says, “It’s no accident that the countries that have enjoyed an economic take off have been those that educated girls and then gave them the autonomy to move to the cities to find work.”

What’s holding poor regions of India back? The answer is nuanced and contains many, many layers, starting with a slower progression of cultural norms that give way to gender equality. But another factor is that many nonprofits and NGOs focus on aid — food and financial donations — which are quick fixes, but can only go so far. Often, they even create new, unforeseen problems.

The real solution to poverty is inclusion. People need to have access to the global system, and they need an awareness of the system. That starts with the freedom to dream beyond one’s circumstances.

That’s why I was excited to visit some of the programs facilitated by the Desai Foundation, a U.S.-based nonprofit whose mission is to provide women and children with the tools they need to improve their own lives.

Our first stop was Untdi, Gujarat to visit Shantaben Vidhyabhavan, a school and community center built and funded by the Desai Foundation. Shantaben Vidhyabhavan provides a premium education and state-of-the-art facilities for more than 700 student across K-12. Going beyond academia, the school also provides a career development program for graduating seniors based on two different tracks: science, or commerce & arts. In fact, the science high school at Shantaben is the only one in the region.

According to Divyesh Trivedi, Executive Director of Desai Foundation – India, 85 percent of their graduates — 90% of the girls, in particular — go on to attend university.

Girls in class at Shantaben Vidhyabhavan (Photo: Romeo Gates)
Girls in class at Shantaben Vidhyabhavan (Photo: Romeo Gates)

Next, we visited the village of Talangpur to see sewing classes, facilitated by the Desai Foundation, in full swing. At this center, I was excited to have an opportunity to talk to some of the women and hear their stories.

25-year-old Urmila recently moved to Gujarat and attends the sewing classes diligently — every day from 10 am to 2 pm. Like many women in India, she’s traveled from her home in Uttapradesh to live with her husband in Gujarat for three years.

In the past two months that she’s been taking classes, Urmila has been learning to sew traditional Indian dresses, and she hopes to soon be able to make some of her own money as a seamstress.

Urmila with other women in her sewing class (Photo: Romeo Gates)
Urmila with other women in her sewing class (Photo: Romeo Gates)

Another student, Manisha, has been taking the course for three months. She already works part-time as a seamstress, and says she completes about one order per day, translating to around 1500 rupees per month. Her husband, who works at an electric shop, brings home around 8000 rupees per month.

“Whatever I earn goes toward my children,” she tells me. Some quick math reveals that if Manisha was able to work 6 days a week and could complete, say, 5 or 6 orders a day, she could easily be making as much – if not more – than her husband. And she’d be self-employed, meaning that she can set her own rates and make her own hours.

Another student, Amruta, has been sewing for a little longer, and regularly makes dresses for women and girls in her village. Her creations have made her 9000 rupees in three months. She also only works part-time.

When asked why they don’t work more hours on something which seems to bring them joy and an income, the women exchanged bemused glances: “Our husbands are happy we are working, as long as we do our housework!”

This, of course, I knew. But I couldn’t help but wonder if I might plant a seed.

A woman in a sewing class facilitated by the Desai Foundation (Photo: Desai Foundation)
A woman in a sewing class facilitated by the Desai Foundation (Photo: Desai Foundation)
Women in a sewing class facilitated by the Desai Foundation (Photo: Desai Foundation)
Women in a sewing class facilitated by the Desai Foundation (Photo: Desai Foundation)

About an hour away in Kharel, I receive the same smiles from three women — Asha, Vanita and Bhanuben — who are participating in the Desai Foundation’s Sanitary Napkins Program.

The program trains women to manufacture, distribute, and sell high-quality, low-cost sanitary napkins throughout their communities.

Using biodegradable materials like wood pulp, cardboard and tissue paper, Asha, Vanita and Bhanuben earn 1 rupee for every pad they assemble.

Bhanuben (left) and Asha (right) assembling sanitary napkins (Photo: Romeo Gates)
Bhanuben (left) and Asha (right) assembling sanitary napkins (Photo: Romeo Gates)

When I arrived, the women were just finishing up for the day. They’d managed to assemble 450 pads, which means they would each take home 150 rupees. Another team of women have been trained to sell the pads and train other women in their communities on how to use them.

This creates a self-perpetuating empowerment cycle in which girls and women can take control over their own health and livelihood. With period shame very much still an issue in rural India, 66 percent of girls skip school when they’re on their periods.

Imagine missing a week of school every month? Keeping up with homework and exams would be almost impossible. Programs like the Desai Foundation’s Sanitary Napkins Program not only provide employment and dignity, but they’re ensuring more girls can excel in their education.

This, truly, is how you improve the lives of individuals and entire communities. These rural villages of Gujarat are several years away from embracing the progressive gender-equal attitudes expressed just a four-hour drive away in Mumbai. But even the opportunity to work part-time provides a sense of dignity and freedom for these women.

Ultimately, when we empower women to dream, and to take control of their own lives, we’re empowering the world.

Women learning about the health benefits of sanitary napkins (Photo: Desai Foundation)
Women learning about the health benefits of sanitary napkins (Photo: Desai Foundation)
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