When it comes to women's empowerment, India has a chequered record. While the country may boast about having the largest number of women professionals in the world, its position in almost any other aspect of women's rights and welfare is nothing short of appalling.
For starters, India has one of the worst male to female ratio (1000:933). The country has about 1.5 lakh recorded cases of crimes against women per year, while an estimated five crore women folk in the country face abuse of some kind.
How can things be better, if roughly half of women in India remain illiterate?
Against this background, Smile Foundation — a Delhi-based NGO — started to address the core issues of education and awareness creation.
In 2002, Smile Foundation was started with a goal to spread education. As it worked along with about 1.1 lakh school children, volunteers and others working with them noticed the alarmingly higher levels of discrimination prevailing amongst school goers.
"It was obvious that gender issues go far and deep in the society," says Naresh Chaudhary, Chief Operating Officer of Smile Foundation. "If someone is a woman she has to fight the society at various stages of her life. First, she needs to survive foeticide which is widespread in the country. Next is the issue of getting nutritious food and getting education, which are considered sole male privileges in families facing scarcity of resources. Of course, there are also things like child marriage, dowry deaths, domestic violence, physical abuse suffered at the hands of alcoholic husbands etc." That understanding resulted in a new project called Swabhiman, which was first implemented in 10 slums of Delhi.
Under the project, the organisation had dispatched to the slums a team of trainers and counsellors to help women defend themselves against physical attacks, learn about their rights and stand up against abuses and bad treatment. "Initially, there was a lot of opposition for our team of workers," Naresh says.
"Especially male members of the community started asking why 'outsiders' should tell their women folk about their rights. It was extremely difficult to make them see how women's empowerment can potentially change the way they lived and even their economic condition."
Special trainers started to teach women — particularly the girls between 12 and 25 years — how effectively they can use things like their dupattas and pens to defend themselves from abusers, while they were also educated on gender issues, adolescent reproductive and sexual health and life skills education. "We thought getting the male members around to be a part of the project was important, since ultimately they need to see the benefits of gender equality," Naresh says. "And we accomplished it through street plays, seminars and one to one interactions with the male members, letting them understand how issues like domestic violence can affect women deeply and how they can be brought down with their cooperation." The effort started to pay off as women folk in the slums not only showed greater awareness, but also volunteered to train those in other places.
The show they conducted recently for the 500 male workers of the Delhi Metro has been hailed as a success.
Two years after commencing the project in 2005, Smile Foundation forged a partnership with Population Foundation of India (PFI) and started offering health services to women. Naresh says the project is now benefiting about 80,000 women. Having implemented Swabhiman in Delhi, Smile Foundation wants to take it to all metros in the country — including Bangalore. "We have also been receiving calls from Nepal and Sri Lanka to train the women folk in those countries as well," he says. "Subject to feasibility, we would even extend the programme beyond India to the entire South Asian region."