Business Today
Loading...

'Swades Foundation works with focus on empowering rural India'

Our goal is to empower one million people in rural India every five years and lift them out of poverty permanently, creating rural communities that are a strong asset to 21st century India, writes Zarina Screwvala, Managing Trustee, Swades Foundation.

Zarina Screwvala | March 4, 2014 | Updated 21:26 IST
(Photo for representational purpose only. Source: Reuters)

Zarina Screwvala, Managing Trustee, Swades Foundation
For me, women's empowerment is more than a personal issue. It is a passion for equality and respect for all beings. What sickens me is that women are just over half of the world's population (or should be) and we are still not treated with the dignity and respect that is the birthright of every living being.

And let's not blame India. Let's look elsewhere, look at America founded on values of freedom and equality for all. Today 200-plus years after independence, they still don't have a woman President. Shocking? India certainly has a better record on this score and we should be proud of it.

I love my country deeply and passionately. But there is one thing I am ashamed of. It is not our poverty. Yes, we are poor and struggling to solve this. What I am deeply ashamed of is that our people, both poor and rich, kill their daughters. This shocks, disturbs and upsets me like almost nothing else. Today's rapes are an outcome of the same beastly behaviour. In fact, animals don't kill nor rape their own. Nature respects both sexes.

So, what can we do? Allow me to talk from the learnings I have had with our Swades Foundation, founded by (my husband) Ronnie (Screwvala) and me. The Swades Foundation operates with the single-minded focus of empowering rural India.

Our goal is to empower one million people in rural India every five years and lift them out of poverty permanently, creating rural communities that are a strong asset to 21st century India. Two years ago, I moved out of our company UTV and have chosen to do this full time. And these have been the best years of my life!

At Swades, we believe every life is valuable and has something to contribute. And that barriers to both overall development, especially that of girls and women, are not that obvious to most. You have to know your community, love and respect them before they open up to you. And this is what we have done for 10 years. And the learnings have been rich and varied. I share them with you here.

ABOUT SWADES FOUNDATION

The Swades Foundation operates with the single-minded focus of empowering rural India. Our goal is to empower one million people in rural India every five years and lift them out of poverty permanently, creating rural communities that are a strong asset to 21st century India.

We have created a unique 360-degree model where our 500 strong team works on the ground in 1,000 villages, executing 70 programmes with 30 partners, directly impacting 300,000 lives. In the next six months we will ramp up to our reach to 600,000.

We have five verticals: Water & Sanitation, Agriculture & Livelihood, Health & Nutrition, Education, and Community Mobilisation.

First, every woman must have a toilet! Yes, I'm serious. One she can use with safety. When we first started going to our villages 10 years ago, we met women who went to the loo before sunrise and then after sunset! They got bitten by snakes. They developed kidney issues and urinary tract infections. Girls did not attend secondary school because there was no safe place for them to go to the loo. In the next five years, our Swades Foundation will build 40,000-plus toilets.

Women must attend village meetings: when we first entered our villages a decade ago, only men attended community meetings. Within two years, we had equal number of men and women. Today, we are starting to engage with communities who have migrated to the cities. We called our first big meeting a few Sundays ago. Sure enough, we had 250 men! I have gently but surely told them that next time they will not be let in without their wives J. Let's see how long it takes this time.

Women can only earn a living if she has water in/near her home. Again, when we first went to our villages, we wanted to work on girls schooling. The villagers laughed at us and said that their eldest daughters had to fetch water for almost two, sometimes even three hours a day. We decided to work on water a decade ago. It was so life changing that the girls started going to school. Women started growing a second crop, learnt sewing and vermiculture and some have rather nice little businesses today.

Today, we all accept that empowered women are the best change agents. "Because women can mange poverty, they can manage development best". This is what Sir Faisal told me and Ronnie when we visited him and his amazing organisation BRAC in Bangladesh. (P.S.: I had a rare moment of star-struckness when I met him.)

And now for one of my favourite of the 70 programmes that we as a foundation run. Our very own SwaRakshaMitra (SRM) programme - for Community Health. With only 6.5 doctors per 10,000 Indians, frontline health workers with paramedical training can make life changing impact on health and hygiene. We train class XII pass ladies from the community and put them through a rigorous training on health and life skills. Today, we have 430 SRMs covering a population of 300,000 people.

My dream for these women is to make them mini-CEOs of their communities. Our first batch of 134 SwaRakshaMitra's, just days after their training, decided on their own to buy themselves beautiful pink sarees as a uniform and went to the government health official and organised four eye camps. One of them has survived the challenges of widowhood to become a self help group member. She is today the Sarpanch of her village and as one of our SRMs, has already saved a life. SwaRakshaMitras have actively advocated the Swades mobile eye care van SwaRakshaExpress and helped many aged people get free spectacles, for the first time in their lives!  Recently the government health authorities requested 235 of our SwaRakshaMitras to deliver the polio vaccination to 10,158 children in Raigad (Maharashtra)! We were delighted and honoured. In fact, collaboration is the keystone of our model of development at Swades.

On International Women's Day (March 8), I think it is time to rethink and regroup our efforts for girls and women in India. The 2011 census revealed that for every 1,000 boys born in our country, there are just 917 girls. Social scientists have raised alarms that nearly eight million female foetuses have been aborted between 2001 and 2011. The worst sufferers of neglect are rural girls and women. The SwaRakshaMitra programme and its evolution is not a panacea to all evils, but it is an example of true women's empowerment. And it is their success that gives me hope for a better tomorrow for us all.

(The author is Managing Trustee, Swades Foundation. Follow Zarina Screwvala on Twitter at @zarinamehta)

  • Print
  • COMMENT
BT-Story-Page-B.gif
A    A   A
close