India has historically had more rural women working than urban women, despite having one of the lowest percentages of women’s workforce participation in the world. The second wave slammed rural India with gruelling severity, wiping off the jobs of 5.7 million rural women in April 2021.
Rural women accounted for approximately 80 per cent of the employment losses in April 2021, compared to only 11 per cent in April 2020. Women from rural areas have faced the most distressing brunt of the lockdowns following COVID-19. Besides losing their jobs and earnings to the pandemic, they are also expected to care for the sick members of their families, and provide for them through alternative means of income, often being forced into unfortunate, unsafe labour circumstances.
Various organisations emerged during this time with innovative ways to help women gain relevant skills to rejoin the labour force and sustain themselves economically. However, the lack of public commute facilities owing to the pandemic made most training centres inaccessible to a large part of the rural population, particularly women.
Skill development today has become significantly vital to minimise high levels of unemployment, enhance the quality of life and one’s self-esteem. Industree Foundation‘s endeavour abbreviated as POWER (Producer Owned Women Enterprises) Project has recently been covered in the media for its attempt at helping women from rural communities gain financial independence through micro-entrepreneurship.
POWER Project‘s ‘6Y Training Program‘ aims to help women producers comprehend their position in a family as well as in the industry and community through gender sensitisation, gender-informed counselling, mentorship, and hard-skill training. It is not unknown to the world that the two-year-long COVID-19 pandemic has affected the marginalised and rural communities the most whose livelihoods depended on daily wages.
Several reports demonstrate that daily wage workers not only suffered the most during the period of lockdown but also continued to be in severe financial crisis, even months after the lockdowns ended. During the period of such dire financial crisis, the women associated with POWER were able to take charge and became the primary earners of their families.
Besides surviving the horrible conditions and impoverishment that ensued after the lockdown, these women also assisted and encouraged other women belonging to rural areas to become economically independent, help their families with sustenance, and improve their own lives.
Denna, a weaver working with the Bamboo Value chain, hails from a five-person family. Her father and brother both lost their jobs as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak. Deena’s mother was economically assisting their family as a member of the SHG (Self Help Group). However, she got laid off as well soon. Deena says, “The opportunity to work in the bamboo unit is seen with great hope and I can earn for myself and support my family”.
Jananti Patamajhi, a Leaf-Collector from Odisha, says, “After getting the training of soft skills and gender training, my [way of] thinking and imagination changed”. It is undeniable that perhaps, new possibilities opened up for these women, in which they could be self-sufficient and free from poverty. Patamajhi adds, “Now, I’m living a life of freedom and prosperity. I can stand before a group of people and speak confidently”.
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A lack of qualified trainers, shortcomings in training programmes, and high dropout rates continue to be impediments to rural skill development. Initiatives like these, which help women update their skills can serve as a catalyst for change in rural communities, increasing income and job opportunities for the rural and marginalised population.
Another Leaf-Collector from Odisha, Pramila Dalapati, eagerly shared her experience following the training she received and expressed how it helped her during the pandemic. She says, “I was hesitant to talk to people in my community, beyond my home. During my visit to the local committee, I used to stay quiet and listen and did not participate in the meetings, whether I understood or not.”
During her work at the Industree, she was introduced to gender awareness and training. She believes that being exposed to other women with empowering stories and conversations regarding gender equality helped her “interact with fellow women and communities”. Dalapati adds, “Now, I am confident to talk, and I feel I have improved over the time.” She further elaborated that her work not only earned her a stipend to support her home, but she also earned “samman” [respect] within her community.
“From a housewife to a confident producer, now I am succeeding as an entrepreneur, and prospering in the workforce”, says Shobana S. from Tamil Nadu. She is self-assured and knows that she has ownership in her enterprise. She adds, “I want to help my fellow producers to move towards self-achievement and financial liberation”.
Aside from imbibing technical abilities to earn money, it is evident from the stories of these women that certain skill development courses also helped them with their communication, language competence, confidence, and self-image.
Rani Mallick, 55, resides in the region of Jamapadar in Odisha alongside her family comprising of seven people. She had barely finished her elementary schooling. She worked as a seasonal farmer, most notably as a turmeric farmer. It was challenging to make a respectable income and pay for the bills and essentials in a large family like her own. Rani is presently employed at the K. Nuagon unit, which has assisted her in meeting her financial obligations.
When the entire financial responsibility of her family was on her shoulders during the peak of the COVID-19 outbreak, her sheer strength and courage enabled to her earn enough to alleviate her family’s struggles to a significant degree. She feels “much privileged to receive Gender & 6Y training”.
The narratives of these women are only a testament to their resilience. The COVID-19 pandemic created or rather exposed the cracks in an already faulty economic system where the oppressed rural communities were pushed to the depths of poverty and left, quite frankly, to scramble for themselves.
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Initiatives like the POWER Project certainly helped provide these women with the skills and knowledge required to sustain themselves financially in a time of catastrophic poverty. While one must certainly not romanticise the amount of stress these families must have been in, to be able to grapple with the helplessness, the courage and resilience of the women from these rural communities are absolutely commendable.
Featured Image: Industree Foundation