Three women in rural Maharashtra have set the wheels of change in motion in their villages as they tackle patriarchal mindsets and break through the notion of predefined gender roles.
Until a year ago, 36-year-old Asiya Gavandi would give herself a reality check whenever she dreamt of selling her Rajgira ladoos (a dessert made out of amaranath seeds). Asiya, a resident of Maharashtra’s Kolhapur district, had made peace with the fact that her dream of selling homemade food items could never take off.
However, after teaming up with 10 more cooks from her neighbourhood in Agar village, realisation dawned upon her that she wasn’t alone in dreaming big. “We started sharing our recipes and gave each other tips on how to package or add preservatives to increase the longevity of the items. By doing research online about packaging, we learnt how to market the products better by establishing a brand. Once we figured out how to market it, we knew who to approach to get enough visibility,” Asiya told indianexpress.com.
Women in Asiya’s village are rarely allowed to step outside to find a source of income. So she taught the women, who were interested in earning, to turn their hobbies into entrepreneurial ventures just like she did.
“There are very few employment opportunities for women in my village. People are still averse to the idea of sending a woman out to work even if their sustenance depended on it. I taught anyone who was willing to change their lives for the better. And why shouldn’t women earn? This fills us up with so much confidence and the financial contribution makes us feel like we’re valued more in the household,” Asiya says.
Asiya is part of Internet Saathi, a digital literacy program Google launched in July 2015. Currently, India accounts for over 400 million internet users, but only 30 per cent of these are women. The initiative aims to eliminate this gap by training and educating women in rural India.
Like Asiya, 30-year-old Aparna Bankar has also mobilised women in Maharashtra’s Brahmani village to raise awareness about menstrual hygiene. “Women in my village are still not allowed to enter their own homes when they are on their period. They are served food like one would offer meals to a stray animal. People have shooed me away from their houses for trying to speak to the women in their family about menstruation. Even women are stuck in a time warp, and don’t think that this topic needs to be discussed even if they have to suffer ailments,” Aparna said.
From educating more women about the need for biodegradable sanitary napkins, to setting up a production unit that supplies the pads to women in the village, Aparna has had to battle quite a few roadblocks. The 30-year-old found it quite difficult to muster a workforce, but increased awareness helped some women realise the income opportunity associated with it, overcoming their prejudices.
“My relatives almost shunned me for working here, but I fought against everyone because I had just lost my husband and I wasn’t going to leave my kids uneducated. So I decided to learn all about how one can make sanitary napkins and how they prevent infections that we get from using cloths and rugs,” says Sangita Nand Bhonsle, a worker at Aparna’s sanitary napkin production unit.
Have bees, will make honey
But for Rohini Shirke from Maharashtra’s Adul village, learning about honey bee farming was a meticulously planned decision. Rohini taught herself to trap and take care of honey bees and then harvest the honey. “With honey bees, one has to take extra care in making sure that the queen bee is unharmed, and the hive hasn’t been infested with ants. I keep going back to the forest to inspect whether they have enough source of food. After figuring out ways to bottle and package it, I started asking local restaurants to keep my honey. I mostly relied on my friends and relatives to spread the word about my honey business,” she said.
Although there are 58,000 ‘Internet Saathis’, who have benefitted over 22 million women, Google’s head of marketing Sapna Chadha believes that conservative mindsets are the real challenge they need to overcome.
“Even though access and affordability have improved over the last few years, the biggest obstacle has been changing mindsets. There are a lot of people who still don’t want the women in their family to have a smartphone because they don’t think they need to use them. Women are also often reluctant to use technology because they are unaware of the scope of the internet,” Chadha told indianexpress.com.