During the month of March, or Women's History Month, we will be featuring guest stories of women who are making history in their own way.
In this post, we feature Shakti.ism, a woman-led social enterprise that empowers and employs women from marginalized communities in India.
I was lucky to be raised by encouraging parents who didn’t see my gender as a limitation, but like many girls being raised in ethnically Indian households, there were certain things (think: the awkward conversations) we didn’t talk about because no one talks about them. In turn, the community and culture had certain expectations – the unspoken things that girls shouldn’t do or say, rules about how girls should behave, who girls should and shouldn’t interact with, and so on. There are even limitations placed on girls who are menstruating or those who have miscarried – baseless discriminatory stigmas that have no merit but are enforced because ‘that’s what everyone does’ and few seem to dare to try and challenge the status quo – conformity reigns supreme.
So when I was groomed and assaulted as a child (by someone respectable within the local Indian community), I wasn’t able to speak out. Despite being empowered by my parents at home, I was confused, to say the least. I felt shame, guilt, fear. Things that a victim should not have to feel. But in a culture where women are raised not to speak out about things, there is little justice to be done, especially without being blamed. Society dictated one thing, but I felt the exact opposite. On top of everything else I went through, it was a huge wake-up call. Something had to be done, and I felt compelled to be a part of it. I have always been outspoken, direct, and an out-of-the-box thinker. I’ve always challenged the status quo. It just makes sense to ask why, especially when you aren’t treated as an equal (and for no good reason). But post-trauma, it became more than that. It became fuel for me, my raison d'être. Fast forward two decades later, and it’s part of who I am. I have this intrinsic need to ensure that women are treated fairly, or not treated unfairly simply because we are women.
I’ve done lots of women’s advocacy projects, from mentoring girls in developing countries to volunteering with women’s charities, and even set up my own global support repository for survivors of gender-based violence. But I am finding that Shakti.ism, my nonprofit social enterprise, is where my passion lies.
Shakti.ism is a social enterprise that empowers and employs women from marginalized communities in India, especially those at risk of being impacted by gender-based violence. Through this initiative, I partner with grassroots NGOs in India that work with disadvantaged women from marginalized communities. Together, we focus on marketing their existing skills, of which they have many, and we can sponsor and provide livelihood skills training where applicable. The idea is to preserve local skills and traditions, empower women to gain dignified employment and a fair living wage. And the business is sustainable by selling their beautiful creations, which in turn allows the makers to become self-sustainable and maintain their independence.
I am already working with several inspiring groups of women across India. All of the groups face ongoing obstacles and difficulties, which vary from community to community. For example, one group I work with in Pondicherry is an indigenous group of people that has faced discrimination since ancient times, primarily because of their nomadic lifestyle and consumption of animals which is considered taboo by Hindus and upper-caste communities within India. The tribal or gypsy communities of India sit at the absolute bottom of society, even below the caste system. Poverty, illiteracy, diseases and discrimination are the major issues that confront the Narikuravars. Girls within the community are often married off directly after they menstruate and can become mothers as early as 14 years old.
Another group I am working with in Hyderabad consists of vulnerable women and girls, particularly those who have been rescued from sex trafficking and other really heinous conditions. Many of these women have never had any formal training and previously had very limited job opportunities. Many of them are also stigmatised and outcast by their own communities, simply because they were victims of trafficking. Some of them were even sold by their own families, so naturally, returning to their communities after rescue is not a feasible option. The NGO I am collaborating with provides them with livelihood skills training, a safe place to work, a means to provide for their families and economic independence that gives them choices to live lives free from abuse and exploitation.
By collaborating with carefully selected grassroots organisations in India that work to empower and support women and girls, Shakti.ism is able to provide a link to the global market, provide financial support and guidance, and to garner international interest and financial support. We work together to assess the needs of these women, and find ways to empower them that are meaningful to them, and we do this by maintaining strong relationships with the NGOs and the beneficiaries themselves. Providing livelihood training and commissioning their services on an ongoing basis allows these NGOs the support they need to keep supporting more women and girls, and by providing a demand for their products and services after they’ve completed their livelihood trainings, we are able to provide employment stability and steady wages and benefits. This in turn provides financial independence, self-respect and self-confidence for these women, and even helps some of the women to gain respect and better treatment from their husbands, in-laws, families, and their communities. We also encourage entrepreneurship, so that there is no obligation once the training has been completed. If the women choose to go off and build their own businesses using the skills they’ve gained, we will support them every step of the way.
According to the UN, When women work, they invest 90% of their income back into their families, compared with 35 percent for men. By focusing on girls and women, innovative businesses and organisations can spur economic progress, expand markets, and improve health and education outcomes for everyone.
By empowering disadvantaged women, we truly can change the world.
Jitna is the founder of Shakti.ism, a nonprofit social enterprise that empowers and employs disadvantaged women in India (and beyond), and shewillsurvive.com, a gender-equality advocacy project. Jitna was raised in both the UK and the US with an Indian upbringing. She’s happily married and is the lucky mama of two lovely daughters.