The SHEROES Contributor

Ritu Baruah

Ritu Baruah has spent 19 years in the education and social sector. Working at the absolute grass root level, the starting point has been her main focus. She worked with farmer families who practiced organic agriculture and set up the training center for organic agriculture in Madhya Pradesh. She has also worked extensively in development of curriculum for schools in rural areas and for children with different abilities.

Crossing the bridge

When you are thrown into the ocean and asked to swim, it is your inner strength and conviction that keeps you from drowning. Even if you are not a trained swimmer, your survival instinct will help you find your way. What happens in a situation like this is that the innate abilities, that every human being has been equally blessed with, surface and lead you on. If one succumbs to pressure of the thought then one drowns.

Women over generations have proved their metal, some being trained ‘swimmers’, but for the rest it is the ‘survival instinct’. While some lead multinationals, bureaucratic departments or represent the country and even win medals, I address the heroes of a different kind, those who lead village self-help groups, become village sarpanches and work at the grassroots to bring social parity and economic sustainability. I would from here on address this woman of our country.

Having spent a considerable part of my life working in rural India, my views may be representative of this one side but it does not decry the urban woman, her aspirations, capacities or struggles. I do not wish to create a further divide. But the divide exists and the first step towards bridging it is acknowledging and understating why.

Unlike urban India, not every child in rural India can exercise the right to education, for lack of infrastructure and economic capacity of parents. This is further accentuated by the sheer administrative failure and political apathy to implement existing legislations on education in our country. In the absence of a solid foundation of education for our rural populace, the malaise of discrimination against the girl child has been allowed to fester for generations in our country. Her life is limited and tied to work at home and in the fields, which she masters at a very young age. Her world is confined and constrained by the lack of opportunity and avenues.

The first steps to be taken are towards education. My focus is not solely academic learning but the lack of investments in skill development. There is a complete absence of vocational training, and what we provide instead is badly structured curriculum, which we mindlessly transfer from the city to the rural settings, whether relevant or irrelevant. Our rural centres of education are not equipped with either personnel or infrastructure to transfer knowledge. Children in rural areas are used to working with their hands, but there are no trainers to enhance these inherent skills. These young minds are not trained to use technology to assist them to survive in this so-called new global world. The divide gets wider time.

Traditional art and crafts are dying because of lack of marketing tools. Crops are sold in local ‘mandis’, which ties the plight of the farmer to the whims of the middlemen. Technology ought to enable the rural populace whether farmers or craftsmen to enhance their capacity and outreach. While the men are always looking to move out it is the women who stay back and are grounded. Thus investing in them, educating them and developing infrastructure related to their needs and building their capacities is the key.

Women hold the key to the well being of our society. While she extends herself to being a quiet contributor to the family income, she is generally not a decision maker, but the most ‘grounded’ part of the population. While the men move away, the woman is the one who stays back and holds the family unit together. Most often isolated in her struggle, she aspires for a different life for her children.

The next step after education is the realization of the strength within. Effective awareness campaigns, government and non-government organizations outreach programmes for women, at the grass root level have played an important role here, providing women with a common platform to address problems, find solutions within.

When the power that rests within each woman comes together in a group, the sum of their individual strengthens combined can change the world. This is where the concept of self-help groups takes shape, where in a group the confidence levels are high and negotiating powers are enhanced. This is starting point for the awakening of an entirely new awareness – whether related to health and hygiene, nutrition, economic independence, gender issues, social practices, rights and duties as citizens of the country. This is a game changer and has effects beyond measure, financially perhaps you can put a value to it but socially the effects cannot be quantified.

So you start to swim, putting your strengths together and you look around you and see another of your kind, your hope of reaching your goal or pulling out successfully from your present situation is strengthened.  Together you can raise an alarm, call for assistance and chances of being heard are high.

And then….

Where do these voices reach and what do they fetch? Have you asked for what you rightfully need and is what you get sufficient? How do you optimize its usage?  You are not a trained swimmer but you will survive … You will survive because  - it is your question, you know what you want, you will survive because -it is your decision, only you can help yourself; you will survive because you are a winner. You may have to fight to get what is rightfully yours but once you get it then you will keep it well because you are a woman. Once you reach the shore there will be lots to receive you and many doors open to celebrate your achievement. You are now self-trained with a strong mind and a fixed focus, make the right decision, move in the right direction and with the same conviction and determination.

Times have changed and women have worked to change them. There are opportunities that will come, their recognition, and how they are used to groom women of today, will bring in a better tomorrow for the present and the future generations to come. Our society today has a lot more to offer for social and economic development. It takes cognizance of and is inclusive of all sections. There are government policies, corporates sharing their responsibilities and there are many non-government organizations, not for profit organizations which assist in policy making and its implementation. The prerequisite here is to cultivate an environment that is conducive to mobilize and utilize the available resources well.

It is very clear that whenever the work done by a group of women is organized and well structured, it is always been successful. There are a lot of efficiently managed projects that one can list down, but the problem is that this touches just the tip of the iceberg. The need is to go deeper.

 Economic independence of women leads to a strong social structure. Her role changes from a mere recipient of information to a decision maker.

Where at one end there is an immense need, at the other end there is a lot available and there is a deep ocean in between which needs to be crossed. There is a need to bridge gaps. There is a lot of good work being done by various organizations. Now is the time to provide a common platform, to complement each other’s work, to achieve a common goal which is the wellbeing of that section of society on whom rests our future.

I call upon the government policy makers to be well versed with ground realities of the beneficiaries of their policies. It has been noticed time and again that these policies just touch the beneficiaries at a superficial level and are ineffective because they fail to be the answers to people’s questions. These policies are made in offices by officials who are far away from grass root realities and the circumstances under which the policies are to be implemented. These are solutions of the policy maker and not the ones for whom the policy is actually made. Levels of accountability and responsibility have to be of the highest level.

I call upon all the investors of corporates who share the social responsibility of our country to spend their resources carefully. Work towards making people self-dependent, let them live with a sense of dignity and pride

I call upon every woman to come forward and hold the hand of the woman next to her, in whatever capacity, and walk ahead together.

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