By Arunima Joshi
From the diaries of SBI YFI Fellow Arunima Joshi: working in association with AKRSP(I) in Ahwa block, Dangs district, South Gujarat.
The term ‘Women Empowerment’ always intrigues me. The definition seems straightforward. But, what does it entail? How do we measure it? When I began my journey as an SBI Youth for India fellow, I knew early on that I wanted to learn the answers to these questions. I wanted to work with and for women.
Keeping this in mind, I visited multiple villages across Dangs. Dangs, the region I chose to work in, is a tribal belt and one of the most backward districts in India. The village visits constituted discussions with women about their daily life and struggles. Each woman was kind and let me into her home with ease.
The visits were informative, but felt incomplete. Each woman’s story was alike. The villages were kilometers apart, but their daily struggles couldn’t be more similar. On my visit to Gundvahal, there was no reason to expect anything different. The remote location guaranteed isolation.
On reaching the village, I was welcomed by Mira Ben and all SHG members. They showed me around the rice and flour mill provided by AKRSP(I). The women had asked for these machines and trainings. AKRSP(I) happily obliged. A papad making machine and plate making machine were also present. These were going to be used by other SHGs.
Once the tour was over, we sat to converse. What followed was the narration of an inspirational story of change. Back in 2008, alcoholism was a major issue in the village. A significant portion of the money earned through labour was spent on this vicious substance, alcohol. Cases of domestic violence, women trying to commit suicide by pouring kerosene all over themselves, fights, and murder followed. Troubled by the unrest in the village, Mira Ben was motivated by an article in the newspaper about ‘daaru bandi’ (alcohol prohibition). She discussed the issue with a few other women. They decided to take up the cause.
The women spoke to the Panchayat who provided legal counsel and police officers provided security. Despite receiving death threats, the women rallied around the village, citing the benefits of alcohol prohibition and encouraging every villager to join their cause. This continued for about six months. Finally, all alcohol dens were shut. Currently, there is a 5000 Rs fine imposed on any villager who tries to open an alcohol den. The village has been alcohol free and at peace for almost ten years now.
 Self Help Group.
 Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (India)
Image: Conversing with members of the Jai Hind Juth in their rice and flour mill
Their micro-governance is second to none. Their rice and flour mill has no door. They appoint two women each night to guard the shed. On asking about this peculiarity, they proudly explain that having no door guarantees that the mill is never shut. This way, business never stops.
In a district where SHGs are prone to shut, the women here have set their own rules. When busy, the women make sure SHG meetings take place at night. If a woman does not attend the meetings regularly, she is not allowed to avail any benefits arising from the SHG. Ten SHGs have formed a VO and received five lakhs rupees funds. They plan to start individual enterprises like mushroom farming, motor repairing shop, and fisheries, by taking loans from the VO. They have taken the first steps to be the breadwinners.
These seemingly trivial roles taken on by the women are a huge contrast to the dynamics and workings seen in other villages of the region. These beautiful entrepreneurs are an anomaly, a welcome rarity.
 Village Organization
Image: Mira Ben(R) and other members of the Jai Hind Juth sharing a light-hearted moment
Mira Ben, Kashi Ben, Sushila Ben, Leela Ben and the others made me realize what was missing in the other interactions. It was laughter. These women would start dancing and singing the minute they get bored of routine. They were empowered. They taught me more than I could ever learn by reading books and research papers. So, what is women empowerment? I think I am closer to the answer. Women empowerment is the resolution of a few women to change the course of an entire village. Women empowerment is the conviction to lead a better life, made by women and executed by them. Women empowerment metrics are singing, dancing, and laughing at will.
About the fellow.
After completing graduation in IT Engineering and working for 3 years in the IT sector as a Software Engineer, Arunima decided it was time to explore the road less travelled. Currently, she has begun her journey in the Social Development sector as an SBI Youth for India fellow in association with Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (India). Travelling to new places, meeting new people, learning about new cultures, and having conversations which add to her perspective of the world are what keep her going. She says she is here to help people help themselves. She is here to learn as much as possible and contribute towards bringing a positive change to society. Arunima is located in Ahwa Block, Dangs District, South Gujarat.