Today is International Women's Day and we are delighted to have Laura Cook from our sister agency All We Can as our guest blogger today. Laura writes about the work of one of our shared partners- The Srijan Foundation in India, and how they continue to challenge discrimination against women.
International Women’s Day on 8th March is an opportunity to celebrate the global social, economic, cultural and political contribution of women, but also to focus on the many challenges still facing women around the world. In 1911, the first International Women’s Day brought together men and women to rally for women’s rights in an unequal society. Why, more than a hundred years later, does that rallying cry still need to be sounded?
At the time of the earliest Women’s Days, women in most nations of the world did not have the vote, and property and power was overwhelmingly in the hands of men. There has been huge progress since those days, and some may be tempted to question whether International Women’s Day is now a redundant concept. However, despite that progress, significant barriers to women’s advancement remain; around the world many women still face poverty, discrimination and violence simply because they are female. For example, today women account for two-thirds of the world’s illiterate adults, and 31 million girls are still denied a primary education. One in three women globally are also likely to experience abuse of some kind.
Pooja Rajiv, one of the founders and leaders of All We Can’s partner The Srijan Foundation in Jharkhand in India, believes that the issues discussed as part of International Women’s Day are as relevant as ever. In their local communities, parity between men and women is still for many a dream. She says, “There is inequality in society in many ways here but for women there are more problems. We are still dealing with childhood marriage for girls, dowry related violence and trafficking. These are challenges that concern me because they affect how women are able to lead their daily lives. Women are often the poorest people here.”
The Srijan Foundation raises awareness of women’s rights and gender issues, and provides training on leadership, decision-making and advocacy. With this support, women are now able to voice their opinions, take greater control of their lives, and are even beginning to take positions of responsibility in local affairs. Changing ingrained views and practices in a community is hard and risky, but through self help groups, the women are able to share their stories and gain mutual support and encouragement.
One woman who has benefitted from the support of the Srijan Foundation is Rani Devi (pictured). Rani is now an elected local government representative in her village of Orla. Short in stature but bold in her demeanour and actions, Rani is known locally as the woman to come to if you want to have your voice heard.
It has not always been like this for Rani though. Until recently, she, like many other women in her village, spent all of her days in her home completing household duties. She was afraid to speak to people outside her immediate family, and had very little confidence. When asked whether she could have imagined herself standing for local election five years ago she laughed and exclaimed, “Previously we were not even very aware of the things happening outside our homes! When a woman would ask for her rights it was usually to a man in power. He would not care about her rights.”
Women like Rani have had the right to vote and run for office since India’s first national elections after independence in 1951, but in reality women in villages in Jharkhand either did not vote or voted for who their husband or father asked them too. Things are now slowly changing. In 2009, then Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh agreed to push for a law that would reserve at least half the seats on elected bodies in villages and districts for women. Rani now sits in one of those seats. It was only after months of encouragement, training and support as part of one of the self-help groups set up by the Srijan Foundation that she felt able to take the step to put herself forward for election. “I know now that when I speak I have the support of ten women behind me, it gives me a sense of the part I play in the group. I am able to stand up for other women. I would like to see husbands valuing women and women able to have a better future. I now have a value in society and with my family I am able to stand up. I want to see every woman have equality with men.”
As the focus falls on women this week, let us celebrate the huge strides women have made as leaders, innovators, and money-earners, and also consider how we can support the efforts of brave women like Rani who are standing up and saying, “I have value. Now I am going to make things better for others”.
Written by Laura Cook
Photo copyright All We Can