India's women are changemakers, not victims

Vinaya Ghevde (left), a Leaders’ Quest fellow with CORO, at work in her community in India. Photo by: Leaders’ Quest

Aid to India has taken a hit recently, as government donors focus on poorer countries. This makes sense, but 400 million Indians are still living on less than $1 a day.

Violence against women is another major challenge. The recent headlines coming out of India horrified us all, yet these stories reveal only a fraction of the problem: Every 3 minutes, a woman in India is subjected to violence.

Media stories frequently portray these women as victims. Given the risks that many of them face every day on the street and in their homes, this is understandable. But it doesn't reveal the whole picture. Many female activists and grassroots campaigners have been working for years to confront the problem, demonstrating that they can lead change within their own communities.

Building women’s leadership skills is vital to helping them tackle violence. With tailored support, women learn how to educate their communities about their rights. They counsel other women about personal relationships and give them the confidence to speak out and report cases of abuse to the police. They form local support groups, spearhead campaigns and build networks to confront entrenched cultural attitudes and give a voice to the unheard. They are changemakers, not victims.  

Building the momentum

Leaders’ Quest and CORO work together to equip grassroots leaders with the skills they need to build this momentum in slum and rural communities across Maharashtra. Our decades of experience in community work show us that traditional aid programs in India are often hampered by corruption, or focus only on the symptoms — rather than the root causes — of problems.

Our approach is different. We have developed a successful year-long fellowship program for promising leaders — with 683 fellows completing the program since 2008, three quarters of whom are women.

These local leaders devise and implement projects that tackle violence in their own neighborhoods. Communities respond better when social initiatives are driven from within, and local leaders understand the challenges far better than outside organizations. These individuals are best placed to act and so we provide them with the training, mentoring and funding they need to do so.

This week #SheBuilds the Future asks how women and girls can be empowered to become the leaders of tomorrow. Our fellowship program helps women fulfil their potential to lead their communities and combat violence. In turn, these women help survivors turn their lives around.

Leadership development

Our work with community leaders teaches us that an understanding of our own identity is crucial if we want to inspire others. We select promising leaders from some of the most marginalized neighborhoods in Maharashtra and start by enabling them to develop their sense of self and establish a new identity within their communities.

Everything we do is inspired by a rights-based approach. Many of the women we work with aren’t familiar with this way of looking at things, so our training also focuses on understanding human rights, including a woman’s — and man’s — right to live free from violence.

They learn about the law — for example, the Domestic Violence Act — and how to use it to protect themselves and others. We also provide training around community organizing, advocacy and project management, which is ongoing throughout the fellowship year.

Working in the community

Our fellows use the skills they learn to form women’s groups where social norms around gender and violence are discussed and challenged. In 2012, the National Family Health Survey showed that 54 percent of Indian women thought it justifiable for a man to beat his wife. In this environment, laws can only go so far to bolster the status of women. Education and mindset shifts are critical too.

Crucially, our fellows set up separate men’s groups and work with them to challenge their beliefs around gender and violence. Our experience shows that treating men as part of the solution is key to bringing about real change.

Our fellows mobilize other women to provide group support and counselling since this is vital to helping survivors recover. They work on sensitizing the police to the issue, particularly because the Domestic Violence Act isn't consistently enforced when women report violence. They also connect women with legal services if they wish to take cases to court.

Ensuring impact

Men and women in our communities tell us that these local leaders are extraordinarily effective at giving them a better understanding of women’s rights — and ways to realize them. Police officers tell us that the number of cases of violence reported has gone up significantly, and relations between women and the police have also improved dramatically.

But our impact — and the impact of programs like ours — goes beyond this. Our programs train women to become successful community leaders. More than 90 percent of our fellows enhance their knowledge on the protection of human rights, and 80 percent advocate on behalf of others with local authorities. More than 70 percent go on to assume greater responsibilities within their organizations or extend their work to a wider area. This is helping us expand across other communities.

One of our fellows, Ratna, is a great example of this process in action. Ratna lives in a slum community in Chembur, Mumbai, where 90 percent of women suffer abuse. When she approached the police about a personal complaint of domestic violence, she was horrified by their insensitivity.

Harnessing potential

Other women also found that the police were reluctant to lodge their complaints, and often dismissed them as “family matters.” Ratna’s potential to lead on this issue was recognized by a community organization and she was nominated to join our fellowship program.

As a fellow, Ratna has learned about her rights — and the better informed she is, the more the police listen to her. Her new-found legal awareness — and the confidence it has given her — has had a remarkable effect. She’s established women’s self-help groups to share knowledge and provide support. She accompanies people to the police station and writes formal letters of complaint to ensure cases are heard. She’s formed a pressure group and built a volunteer team of local boys to help break the cycle of violence. And with her colleagues, she’s organized committees to hold the authorities accountable at six police stations serving more than 100,000 people.

Ratna says that her most important achievement has been reinstating the police presence in her community. A tiny, one-room building designed to house an officer was built almost 20 years ago but never used. So she asked the police to reopen it and the women’s groups agreed to pay for building repairs. It now doubles as a much-needed meeting place for her village.

She has also experienced massive individual transformation: She is now well informed about her rights, confident about claiming them and equipped to lead her community towards achieving lasting change.

Ratna is one of hundreds of inspirational women who are turning their own lives around — and helping others to do the same. She represents the millions of Indian women who face violence every day. Her story gives us hope that from small ripples, a movement can grow.

Want to learn more? Check out She Builds and tweet us using #SheBuilds.

She Builds is a month-long conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with Chemonics, Creative Associates, JBS International as well as the Millennium Challenge Corp., United Nations Office for Project Services and U.K. Department for International Development.

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About the author

  • Lindsaylevin devex 3

    Lindsay Levin

    Lindsay Levin founded the social enterprise Leaders’ Quest in 2001. Leaders’ Quest works with people from all walks of life — from CEOs to grassroots organizers — who want to use their unique influence to create positive change in the world. It designs experiential learning journeys for people to explore answers to tough questions about business, society and their own leadership. Levin’s book, "Invisible Giants: changing the world one step at a time," was published in 2013.