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Nancy Coldham

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Empowerment hits India’s streets

India’s women are magicians. They dot the countryside labouring in the fields, walking with heavy loads balanced on their heads, their colourful saris making them visible from miles away. Yet, within Indian society, they are invisible and often voiceless. How can women be so visible, yet invisible? There are two Indias if you are a woman. This is the perspective of someone just returning from close to a month in India, travelling in Delhi, Agra, Ahmedabad, Goa and Mumbai. This is the experience of someone who worked with a non-government organization dedicated solely to advancing India’s women. Given current global news coverage of violence against women in India, it seems like a good time to share a woman’s experience in the remarkable place called India.

Indian authorities have been struggling to combat gender-related crime for years. Violence against women is not new in India. Gang rape stories are not new in Delhi or other Indian cities. But this past December, male and female Indians hit the street to protest the heinous, cowardly and brutal crime of gang rape and murder against Jyoti Singh, a 23-year-old professional woman making her way home with a friend after a movie. The protests continue in streets that this woman observer had walked alone never sensing any risk of personal danger. What’s changed? India is being transformed; part medieval and part modern. The clash has social consequences.

Women are agents of significant change in India. Women’s work is no longer just the tedious work of factories, agriculture and domestic chores. Women entrepreneurship is having a huge impact by tackling some major social inequities, including illiteracy, systemic injustice and poverty, by providing an infrastructure of empowerment to uncounted women who toil in India’s informal sector. It’s part of the transformation magic. It is amazing to witness it.

There are many organizations working to improve the lives of India‘s women; one in particular, SEWA, the Self-Employed Women’s Association, is celebrating 40 years of success.

Understanding what SEWA is doing sheds light on why such extreme violence aimed at a female health care professional can ignite such outrage. There is a growing critical mass of enterprising women in India; their fathers and brothers and spouses are experiencing the power of their empowerment, and thanks to social media the world becomes a witness to the crime in real time. There is no escaping the hideous reality. No one can be bribed to say it didn’t happen.

SEWA and Indian businesswomen

The impact of the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) is visible in villages across the country. Women who can’t read or write and have basically no real rights learn how to sign their names, read a document, open a bank account, start a business, commit to a loan and secure something quite unthinkable: a home in their names. No sorcery, just empowerment and an infrastructure to support and sustain it. SEWA does it with full permission of the men in the villages. SEWA’s organic, vertically-integrated structure lets it be an academy for teaching, a bank, an insurer, a housing developer and a trade co-operative for hundreds of thousands of women textile workers.

As a Canadian woman entrepreneur, the opportunity to watch SEWA in action and to meet with women participating in SEWA programs in small villages outside of Ahmedabad, in the western state of Gujarat, is a privilege with some irony. A 2012 Reuters TrustLaw survey of G20 countries identifies Canada as the best place for a woman and India as the worst.

What makes India the worst? Child marriage, feticide and infanticide, sexual trafficking, domestic slave labour, domestic violence and high maternal mortality are the reasons India wins the title as worst of the G20 countries for women. But another 2012 study, this one conducted by DELL, ranks India as the best place in the world to be a woman entrepreneur. There’s the clash again. That’s the essence of the two-world reality for Indian women.

Forbes recently profiled India’s top 10 women and the role they play in India’s economy, from high-tech and banking to newspapers and hotels. These are Indian women with degrees from Harvard and Yale. SEWA can share the profiles of women who in less than three years go from illiteracy to employing the majority of the women in their village, having hard assets in their own name and starting a pension plan for when they can no longer be self-employed. These are socio-economic bookends from the two extreme ends of the spectrum: extreme wealth and extreme poverty. These are the women who are stopping child marriage. These are the women who are changing the balance of power in their homes and communities. These are the women who will no longer be silent about gender related violence and injustice.

Women’s work as entrepreneurs is a UN-recognized tool for sustainable development. India is at the forefront of this seismic shift. A study of gender-related development (GRD) has created a GRD Index linked to a nation’s Gross Domestic Product. It clearly captures that in nations where women are advancing through entrepreneurship economic growth is steady and in countries without women’s economic participation economic growth is stagnant. India’s prime minister and government will respond swiftly to this latest incident of violence against women because the world demands it, but also because women are no longer invisible since becoming economic drivers, helping drag India into the 21st century.

The magic of women’s work in India is that while it has always involved heavy lifting, it’s been made to look effortless because of women’s resilience, resourcefulness and resolve.