AROH Foundation – Creating Awareness in Women to Empower and Engage Them in Nation-Building

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Dr Neelam Gupta

Data provided by the National Commission of Women (NCW) suggested there was almost a 100 per cent increase in violence against women, especially during the shadow pandemic. The statistics are alarming. There is a strong need to provide a safety net to women who are silent sufferers of domestic abuse. AROH Foundation aims to improve the socio-economic status of marginalised and vulnerable women through its pioneering initiatives with sustainable solutions. CSR Mandate spoke to Dr Neelam Gupta, Founder President & CEO, AROH Foundation, to know more about project SHAKTI, and how the Foundation is gearing up awareness generation among women in day-to-day issues leading to their overall empowerment.

How did the AROH Foundation come into being?

AROH, an acronym for A Ray of Hope, is my heart child. The seeds for AROH were sown in my heart right from my childhood. When I was just around 13-14 years old enroute to my school on one of the December chilly mornings, I spotted a girl, almost my age, who was shivering profusely as she had no warm clothes. I gave her my pullover to comfort her. I spotted her again at the same place the next day sans the pullover. I asked her about it. She sadly responded that her father took it away and sold it.

Amongst the other social ills and crimes prevalent in the slums, domestic violence is one of the issues faced by women all the time. While both men and women are aware that domestic violence is morally and legally offensive, they choose to ignore this common knowledge. This is because our societal norms have normalised tolerance of domestic violence.

I realised that it is not sufficient to merely give food, or in this case, provide a sweater, but to help that person learn how to be independent and earn so that they will not go hungry or suffer during the wintry season. The saying – if you give a hungry man a fish, you feed him for a day but if you teach him how to fish, you feed him for a lifetime, is what we should keep in mind all the time if we want to raise independent, self-sufficient, confident and responsible human beings. This is the sustainable route we need to take to empower an individual or community.

Now coming back to how this Foundation came into being: I registered AROH Foundation in 2001 as a Society under Societies Registration Act XXI, 1860. I set up this NGO because I wanted to serve and give back to society and create an equitable society with equal opportunities for everyone to grow and prosper. 

How did the SHAKTI project get started? What were the struggles you faced when it was initiated?

AROH has had a strong presence in various urban slum establishments for more than ten years now. Amongst the other social ills and crimes prevalent in the slums, domestic violence is one of the issues faced by women all the time. While both men and women are aware that domestic violence is morally and legally offensive, they choose to ignore this common knowledge. This is because our societal norms have normalised tolerance of domestic violence. During the COVID lockdown, where victims and culprits were forcibly locked for an indefinite period, the rate and reporting of violence were recorded at an all-time high by the National Commission of Women in India. 

Usually, due to social pressure, ignorance and helplessness, women tend to tolerate this violence, which is even appreciated as a high level of endurance. Poverty and stressful life conditions add fuel to this violence, age-long patriarchal setups, and inaccessibility to the right authorities or individuals to seek support also keep the victims at the receiving end.

There was a strong need to provide a safety net to women who are silent sufferers of domestic abuse and violence. Due to this menace, they are unable to live happy and healthy lives and cannot realise their full potential. There was a need to create acceptance and awareness so that they start reporting or at least sharing their problems. There is a need to prevent and reduce instances of Violence Against Women (VAWs). 

This was the main reason why we launched Project SHAKTI (Power) in early 2021 in the South Delhi slums of Sangam Vihar. This project aims to address the problem of domestic violence, especially intimate partner violence, physical, verbal and emotional, suffered by poor and vulnerable women.  

While AROH was well prepared and focused strategically and morally to implement Shakti, there were many hurdles just at the start of the project. They included political reluctance in providing support, or even social hurdles where fostering local acceptance and instilling a sense of ownership among community members was a task. The community also presented its friction in breaking age-old set patriarchy. We also had implementation risks where operating in remote contexts with weak formal service was a challenge in sustaining partnerships and change beyond a single-programming cycle. With concerted dedication and efforts, we were able to mitigate them eventually. 

Usually, due to social pressure, ignorance and helplessness, women tend to tolerate this violence, which is even appreciated as a high level of endurance. Poverty and stressful life conditions add fuel to this violence, age-long patriarchal setups, and inaccessibility to the right authorities or individuals to seek support also keep the victims at the receiving end.

What are the affected areas in Delhi where the project is being implemented? Apart from Delhi, are you working in other States?

There was a dire need for intervention for 500 underprivileged women during the lockdown in the South Delhi slums of Sangam Vihar. The aim was to address the problem of domestic violence, especially intimate partner violence, physical, verbal and emotional, suffered by the poor and vulnerable women. Since we already have our presence in the area, and based on our experience, a need analysis emphasised the necessity to take up a project like SHAKTI to support women in need. 

Due to its instant and humongous impact, SHAKTI was also replicated in the clusters of Mundka slums in North West Delhi. With its crucial component of creating awareness, advocacy and extended activities of socio-economically empowering women through income-generating skill training and enterprise setups, we scaled up this model in the villages of Uttar Pradesh, Meghalaya, Chhattisgarh, and Rajasthan, under our various projects. 

How many women have benefited from the SHAKTI project? How do you encourage women through this project?

SHAKTI has by far benefited more than 5000 women directly and more than 10,000 women indirectly through extensive awareness, personalised remedial services and counselling sessions.  

Project SHAKTI runs on only one emotion, and that is TRUST. Women victims trust our team members enough to open up and disclose their most private chapters of tyranny. Our staff pledge to maintain the privacy and dignity of the victims and to provide them with the most empathetic environment and solutions. The project also creates a conducive environment of prosperity for women while including her peer group in phases of awareness and counselling. 

The hypothesis of the project itself suggests that once a motion of awareness and confidence is created among women, their peer group and the community at large, women will be more likely to disclose VAWs, that communities will become less tolerant of it, and that the prevalence of intimate partner and domestic violence will reduce and eventually diminish. 

The project adopts a three-tier approach – Preventive (Identification of beneficiaries, awareness campaigns and personalised services), Curative (Institutional approach and training of changemakers) and Sustainability (Placing changemakers in the clusters and establishing liaisons within stakeholders) aspects to ensure impact and its sustainability even after the project team exits from the sites. The success and impact of the project itself is the deep-seated trust between the women and team SHAKTI.

There was a strong need to provide a safety net to women who are silent sufferers of domestic abuse and violence. Due to this menace, they are unable to live happy and healthy lives and cannot realise their full potential. There was a need to create acceptance and awareness so that they start reporting or at least sharing their problems. There is a need to prevent and reduce instances of Violence Against Women (VAWs). 

Can developing an alternative structure bring about change in society? How would you address the fight for women empowerment?

We at AROH do not believe in creating a parallel structure or processes. We design projects that have a large scope in creating convergence and liaison with existing schemes, resources and repositories. This also ensures the sustainability of the initiative as manpower and resources are from the local vicinity who are empowered and skilled to take over the baton after we exit from the area.

As India’s population grows, its social, political and economic rights continue to be fair toward men, but not women. Women empowerment in India is put aside while the country’s society focuses on the empowerment of men. Approximately 43.4 per cent of women suffer from crimes committed by their husbands or family members. As of 2015, the Government’s lack of action has positioned India as 125th out of 188 countries on the Human Development Report’s Gender Inequality Index.

India’s journey on women empowerment and gender equality dates back to that point in history when Raja Ram Mohan Roy fought to end Sati Pratha. For the past hundreds of years, especially after India’s independence, visible gains have been made through legal reforms, human development and grassroots initiatives but, we still have a long way to go in many areas of women empowerment. A more integrated and concerted effort is needed to close the urban-rural divide and ensure that women in rural areas enjoy the same access to education, employment, healthcare and decision-making as their urban counterparts. The hardest challenge will be to change attitudes, given that many barriers to women empowerment are attributed to patriarchal and patrilineal traditions that are deeply entrenched in our society. Simply put, we need to go for the Gaon to Global approach stepwise systemically to curb this deep-rooted problem. 

What is the road ahead like for the SHAKTI project? 

SHAKTI has a rippling effect. In a short span of 1.5 years, we have seen heartwarming responses from our beneficiaries. SHAKTI also spread its safety wings to more than five States now, including Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Meghalaya, Chhattisgarh, and Rajasthan. It has been a roller coaster yet gratifying journey so far. 

In future, we would want to increase our outreach to the remotest locations and the neediest women in all corners possible. We also want to be associated with the National Commission of Women, Ministry of Women and Child, legal groups, etc., under the project to ensure seamless and quick resolutions to the programme. We aim to enlarge our SHAKTI umbrella to the maximum number of women possible in securing their dignity, rights and health while creating a favourable ambience for them to prosper. 

India’s journey on women empowerment and gender equality dates back to that point in history when Raja Ram Mohan Roy fought to end Sati Pratha. For the past hundreds of years, especially after India’s independence, visible gains have been made through legal reforms, human development and grassroots initiatives but, we still have a long way to go in many areas of women empowerment. A more integrated and concerted effort is needed to close the urban-rural divide and ensure that women in rural areas enjoy the same access to education, employment, healthcare and decision-making as their urban counterparts.

Being a leader, what do you think is the most significant barrier to female leadership? 

Oh, there have been many, and there are still many. It is indeed a man’s world. Sexism, veiled or overt, holds professional women back. And there are gender biases and stereotyping that work against professional women’s leadership aspirations.

Historical sexism and gender bias have resulted in structural barriers that serve as obstacles to women trying to climb the rungs of the corporate ladder. The historical dominance of men in the workplace has resulted in less developed networks of female leaders. Some female leadership networks might offer formal presentations about strategies for following up in business while others might feature casual get-togethers over wine during which professionals have a chance to build relationships and learn about each other’s businesses and how to help one another. 

Professional women often face significant challenges balancing work and family. Their family responsibilities can limit their ability to pursue leadership positions. This is because they have full-time jobs while also handling the lion’s share of household responsibilities, such as caring for the young, the sick, or elderly family members. 

Even though women are vaulting to leadership spaces, our communities remain obstinately resistant to women in leadership roles. They (the patriarchy) too often perceive women as too delicate to lead. This trend, among many other deeply-seated and unconscious gender biases, forces potential women leaders to withdraw into their shells. Yet women possess inherently strong attributes that can help lead more effectively.

Being in the social sector, my work demands me to be more soft and polite, but handling a team of more than 200 people and taking responsibility for more than two to three lakh beneficiaries have made me aggressive at the same time. Personally, it is a tough balance between being polite and aggressive. 

I strongly feel that along with women empowerment initiatives, there is an equal need to run extensive campaigns of sensitising men towards declassifying women. Men need to undergo systematic training to treat women as normal fellow beings and normalise their existence in the ecosystem. In India, small interventions bring big changes for gender equality. Interventions should start at the school level. We should promote the education of women, facilitate them with important and valid information, and once she is aware of her rights, she will not require constant support

How do you see upcoming changes in the employment landscape due to COVID-19, impacting women leadership?  

This year, more than any other year, we should celebrate women in leadership. The pandemic has fallen heavily on the shoulders of women. Many have lost their source of livelihood. Most have a triple duty – caring for families, managing households, and handling economic activities. Some have faced the brunt of the pandemic as caregivers and essential service providers. Yet others have stepped up to also solve challenges in their communities. We should engage our young women to realise that they already have superpowers they can invoke to solve problems and lead—locally, nationally, and internationally. They should trust in these superpowers – observing, listening, learning, empathising with others, experimenting and persevering when doing what is hard, and crystallising lessons into actions that bring systemic change. But, most importantly, we should encourage them to be courageous, to dream big, or to start small as seeking solutions to the day-to-day problems facing us and our communities can lead to a broader change in the world.

We will go on talking about India’s potential until this army-in-waiting of changemakers take charge. They can and must connect their businesses to the economy and anchor the State to their vibrant communities. They can give birth to an India that becomes the finest expression of how to develop a country. India was the cradle of civilisation. Tomorrow, it can be a leader in a globalised world. It is this HOPE that I want to give to my future women leaders and this is what keeps me motivated too – A Ray of Hope.

What methodology do you use to spread your message and work to those who may not believe in gender equality?

Awareness is the key. We empower women about their due rights and dignity. We inform them about various laws supporting their welfare. Simultaneously, we make them aware of their peer group, the community at large, and nation eventually, through all means possible. We take small steps, create awareness door-to-door and through large gatherings. We create a group of like-minded people and create a rippling effect of the phenomenon. I allow women to speak about various pressing challenges at every national and international platform.

I strongly feel that along with women empowerment initiatives, there is an equal need to run extensive campaigns of sensitising men towards declassifying women. Men need to undergo systematic training to treat women as normal fellow beings and normalise their existence in the ecosystem. In India, small interventions bring big changes for gender equality. Interventions should start at the school level. We should promote the education of women, facilitate them with important and valid information, and once she is aware of her rights, she will not require constant support. 

What leadership advice would you give to the next generation of female leaders? What keeps you motivated? 

Indian girls and women stand to gain the most from shaping their country into a place that releases their enormous potential. It is to them that I look for leadership. Many are living on the fringes of society, in the grey economies, in community associations, in peer lending groups. They are not integrated into the economy or institutions of governance. It is high time they do. Indeed, we will go on talking about India’s potential until this army-in-waiting of changemakers take charge. They can and must connect their businesses to the economy and anchor the State to their vibrant communities. They can give birth to an India that becomes the finest expression of how to develop a country. India was the cradle of civilisation. Tomorrow, it can be a leader in a globalised world. It is this HOPE that I want to give to my future women leaders and this is what keeps me motivated too – A Ray of Hope, AROH for you!