“Your scheme uplifts women and women lift up the economy” is arguably the biggest takeaway from ‘Crazy Rich Asians’, and one of the many pearls of wisdom that Prema Gopalan has acted on for over two decades.
As founder and executive director of Swayam Shikshan Prayog (SSP), Prema Gopalan strongly believes that excluded and resource-poor communities can be revitalized through economic growth and social progress when the potential of grassroots women entrepreneurs is realized and tapped.
Prema Gopalan is a reputed advisor on community resilience and women’s leadership, having advised international institutions such as the World Bank and UNDP as well as Huairou Commission, a global coalition of 28 countries promoting grassroots women leaders in development and policymaking around the world.
An entrepreneur herself, she has racked up awards and accolades from Ashoka Globalizer, a Synergos Fellow to Schwab Foundation’s Award of Outstanding Social Entrepreneur of the Year 2019.
Since 1998, Prema through Swayam Shikshan Prayog has built a robust ecosystem that enables women-led entrepreneurship and leadership in emerging high-impact sectors clean energy, agriculture, and nutrition, health, and sanitation in 30 districts across seven states in India.
By tapping the power of rural women social entrepreneurs in ailing economies, SSP has opened up non-traditional livelihood incomes, tripled household earnings, and built new leadership capital in excluded areas.
SSP is a learning and development organization that has empowered over 200,000 rural women as entrepreneurs, farmers, and community leaders and helped them in their journey to attain self-reliance and self-sufficiency. The very name of the organization maps out the goal and means that are followed.
Swayam: or self–empowerment (women access savings, credit, entitlements, improve well-being)
Shikshan: Provide continuous opportunities for self-education through entrepreneurship, leadership
Prayog: projects in key sectors that foster grassroots innovations – agriculture, livelihoods, health, water & sanitation.
By enhancing the women’s social, economic, and political competencies, and by mainstreaming them into development and government processes, SSP has grown these women into a formidable army of change agents.
This is one of the lessons that have shaped the working of the organization. Women’s community leadership roles are closely linked to how she is doing as an entrepreneur, but rural women view themselves as self-employed and not as entrepreneurs. This is why training them to be entrepreneurial is both so important and so impactful.
When women lead change, they come up with unconventional solutions. All it takes is to empower them with the decisive authority they need to see through the ideas they have to develop their communities. SSP aims to do exactly that.
Some of the flagship programs that SSP runs have successfully followed the approach of building a voice or agency and leadership of women at the grassroots level.
These women then are empowered to take on the mantle of multiple new roles, from decision-makers and entrepreneurs to public figures and network developers who drive the local economy. The value created by 41,000 new women farmers is estimated at 516 crores.
The Resilience Initiatives In COVID crisis
The two decades of experience in turning “crisis into opportunity” to build community resilience in climate hit, drought-prone regions has held SSP in good stead. SSP’s “Sakhi Task Force” – a network of women that take on leadership roles in their communities joined the national efforts for relief, recovery and building of long-term resilience to reduce the impact of the COVID crisis.
While the worst-hit areas were mostly cities, rural communities were not spared from the impact of COVID-19. The ensuing lockdowns disrupted the livelihoods and food security of the poor. The SSP supported Sakhi Task Forces reached out to 2,50,000 families in need of COVID relief across 15 districts in 4 states. Women’s groups. The COVID crisis robbed the poor and landless of their daily wage work, but also pushed them towards greater self-reliance.
Projects to promote community preparedness with Panchayats including women sarpanches and women leaders across 250 villages was rolled out and the SSP teams closely worked with the Government to support vulnerable groups after the lockdown.
Assessing the gaps in food security, water, and sanitation, and ensuring implementation of health, hygiene and social protection schemes so that the needs of those impacted by the Pandemic do not go unaddressed. Working closely with the local authorities had paid off in helping those who needed it most.
The pandemic did not stop initiatives like the vegetable cooler that ensured a greater shelf-live for the year-round vegetable yield or the setting up of new Agri-Enterprises. Disastrous situations like the pandemic have only strengthened the conviction that self-reliance and self-sufficiency are necessary to empower the rural communities.
Women-Led Climate Resilient Farming
Climate change and its uncertainty are felt most by the farmers raising crops dependent on the climate. Of course, climate-resilient farming is of paramount importance to those already affected by climate change.
Women-led climate-resilient farming is a solution that keeps scarcity at bay. Shifting from Cash crops to food crops, women farmers from some remote villages have found nutritious food, viable farming and a dependent income year-round.
This is the direct result of the ‘Sakhi Anna Suraksha Sheti’ or ‘One Acre Model’ farming where 300 women farmers have converted about an acre each of their land for the program.
Efficient and traditional farming techniques and resource preservation has created greener fields and greater yields. They have even improved the groundwater levels to boot.
The push to self-reliance has increased with both food and medicinal plants being grown, which has been expedited by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
The program, since 2014, significantly increased income, diversified income sources, created assets, and transformed the status of over 150,000 women and households.
The agency creation approach that SSP favours necessarily means building the required environment or on a larger scale, an ecosystem, for success.
Since its inception, SSP has developed a widespread Self-Help Group (SHG) network of 100,000 women that have gone beyond the first steps of reconstruction and savings to build social, political, and economic competencies for its women members.
Women in Maharashtra, Bihar, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Assam, Odisha are empowered to promote inclusive development by providing them with access to skills, finance, and the markets.
The SSP group of social enterprises was created as an ecosystem to nurture budding entrepreneurs. This consortium of four enterprises includes Swayam Shikshan Prayog (SSP) a registered charitable society, Sakhi Samudaya Kosh (SSK) a Microfinance Institution, Sakhi Social Enterprise Network (SSEN) a non-profit Section 8 Company, working through its Rural School of Entrepreneurship, Sakhi Unique Retail Enterprise (SURE) a Private Limited business.
Together, they provide access to networks, finance, technology, and markets. Another enterprise that is the newest of the group is the Women’s Entrepreneurship and Leadership Institute (WELI) meant to build a system that teaches and nurtures entrepreneurial and leadership attitudes among grassroots women
SSP has launched and mentored a network of Sakhi SHGs and Sakhi Federations, creating a dynamic umbrella network of 5,500 SHGs for a robust ecosystem to support women’s entrepreneurship and leadership with wide-ranging access to services, so women with high net worth can make a meaningful social and economic contribution. The benefit of empowerment is in its multiplier effect which ensures a future for more than just the women who were empowered to act.
Water, Sanitation, Health, and Nutrition
SSP’s work within the sectors of health and nutrition, focuses primarily on the Marathwada region of Maharashtra, to increase the resilience of communities threatened by hydrological drought. The region that is in focus, has experienced both rainfall deficit and drought coupled with unsustainable agricultural practices, which has taken its toll on the sanitation, hygiene, health and nutrition of the community.
Climate change has led to food and income scarcity which coupled with limited decisive power of women within the home or community has led to terrible consequences for the women and their families. This is an important reason why SSP addresses the complex issues of climate change, gender roles and their impact on sanitation, hygiene, health and nutrition.
The women in the house are the change agents and it is necessary to position them as such for the survival of the community. They play the role of “Arogya Sakhis”- friend or facilitator and are trained to lead by helping increase knowledge and awareness as well as taking the necessary actions to bring behavioral change.
It does not help anyone if change stops with ‘knowing’ and does not make it to the ‘doing’. The women learn about improved WASH practices, nutrition awareness, water security, collection and usage, adoption of climate-resilient farming practices, and linkages with government schemes. This knowledge and the developed capacities trickles down to the households they are directly working with and helps build social capital in the community.
One of the many success stories of the program is that of Asha, a young widow with 2 children and no landholdings. Formerly a daily wage labourer, she is now a proud Arogya Sakhi who has gained self-confidence and a network of Sakhis as a support system.
Working with her village to help raise awareness, about health and nutrition she not holdings meetings with at least 30 women, while she started with just a handful. Over 300 women have been mobilized to work towards developing their villages.
After about two decades of tireless work, the fruit of this labour is evident in the changes seen. The transformation is seen as a result of the hard work and dedication of SSP and its members is all the motivation needed to continue to the good work despite the difficulties that have inevitability cropped up.
In enhancing rural women’s skills and economic opportunities, SSP has been instrumental in creating an enabling ecosystem to support women as entrepreneurs; enhancing their skills and business knowledge helping them establish and scale their existing business and venture into new and innovative businesses.
Transformation in the lives of the communities has also been entrepreneurial, social and financial as several women entrepreneurs enhance their business skills with many having experienced the benefits of the transformation, while others are on their learning curves moving in the footsteps of progressive and transformed Sakhis.
The transformation affects not just the women who actively participate learn and build capabilities, but those affected by the changes the women are encouraged to bring about. They have worked hard to bring about uplifted social status, skills, increased incomes, savings, and improved credit portfolio.
Empowering Sakhis has, in turn, led to them starting an entrepreneurial journey with a business vision and continuous planning of their business activities. Enabled to explore opportunities to expand the business, Sakhis have increased their customer base, effectively targeting both men and women as customers have been a great step forward in the quest for self-reliance.
Targets for 2023
SSP is not resting or simply continuing the work they have already begun. SSP has ambitious plans for expansion by the year 2023. From reaching up to 8 million people from climate affected communities by building capacities of women from these communities to address pressing issues to catapulting an additional 50,000 women as entrepreneurs and farmers.
Entrepreneurs and farmers that can address the needs and lead the development of more and more rural pockets in the climate change affected communities across India is the goal that they continue to work toward unwavering commitment. SSP will nurture about 2,000 women leaders to develop a higher level of women leadership, shouldering the responsibility of facilitating agency building of women in her village taluka to address their needs and that of the community.
The goals that SSP has set for the near and far future is ambitious but possible especially with help. The list of partners is both impressive and a testament to the faith placed on the organization. For anyone looking to be involved in this undeniably worth battle for the empowerment of those most in need of it, check out this link: https://swayamshikshanprayog.org/get-involved/
Of course, restrictions placed by the strange times we live in now don’t have to mean you can’t help the cause. You could always make contributions to help the organization at: https://swayamshikshanprayog.org/support-ssp/.