Empowering Women and Transforming Communities: A Journey of Hope and Happiness

0
611

Ritu Prakash Chhabria

As the Managing Trustee of Mukul Madhav Foundation (MMF), I am deeply humbled and inspired by the transformation I have witnessed among vulnerable communities through our work since 1998. Our work spans a wide range of initiatives, fulfilling 17 of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 15 of the 16 CSR mandates proposed by the Indian Government in 2014. We are committed to making a meaningful and lasting impact on the lives of those we serve, focusing on healthcare, education, equality, empowerment, clean water, and sanitation. With a mission to bring hope and happiness to every life we touch. 

Our journey is sustained with a simple yet powerful belief: empowering women holds the key to solving the manifold challenges faced by our society. Whether it is healthcare, sanitation and clean drinking water, social welfare, equal education opportunities, or eradicating hunger and poverty, the impact is exponential if we empower women in that community.

We at MMF understood this very early. We did not assume what a woman needs. Instead, we ventured into the villages, nursing homes and schools and listened to the women and their stories, their tales of grit and perseverance. Lives are sustained just by a trickle of hope. We listened and then partnered with them on their journey. To some, we offered education and training, to some healthcare, sanitation, and a source of income. But what we offered each of them was dignity, a shot at joy, a chance to trump their circumstances, an opportunity to break free from societal restraints. 

Respect is what a widow yearns for, a female inmate in a jail treasure. This is what a transgender or a young girl denied an education dream in common or that young girl with cerebral palsy and the woman working on a farm desire.

Empowering Women for a Better Tomorrow

Our mission is to empower the most vulnerable, particularly women, to become catalysts for change within their communities. We believe that women can lead the way towards a more equitable and compassionate society when we provide them with the necessary tools, skills, and resources, We are committed to breaking barriers, challenging norms, and fostering a supportive environment where women can thrive and unleash their true potential.

We began work with widowed women farmers in Osmanabad, Maharashtra. These brave women had to cope with the loss of their husbands and also faced financial hardship and societal marginalisation. Through the initiative, we provided them with land acquisitions, trained them in modern farming techniques through Krishi Vigyan Kendra, and enhanced their marketing and pricing skills. Every year, we give them soya and tur dal seeds for planting. They then sell the produce from their harvest at the nearby market. 

A Brighter and More Inclusive Tomorrow

Our vision is to create a world where every woman is respected, every child is educated, and where every community thrives. We envision a society where no one is held back by their circumstances and where hope and happiness are not just aspirations but a reality for all. Through our initiatives and partnerships, we strive to build a brighter and more inclusive tomorrow, where every individual has the opportunity to lead a fulfilling life.

Empowering Women: A Catalyst for Change

Since the very inception of MMF, we recognised that empowering women is central to creating sustainable change. We firmly believe that women have the power to break the cycle of poverty and uplift entire communities. Our approach has always been to listen to women’s voices, understand their unique challenges, and collaborate with them on their journey to create a better life for themselves and their families.

A Ray of Hope in Osmanabad

When we look at the work we do in rural India, amongst all the other initiatives, we are proud of the widows in Osmanabad who we set on the path to self-reliance. 

We began working with widowed women farmers in Osmanabad, Maharashtra in 2019. These brave women had to cope with the loss of their husbands and also faced financial hardship and societal marginalisation. Through the initiative, we provided them with land acquisitions, trained them in modern farming techniques through Krishi Vigyan Kendra, and enhanced their marketing and pricing skills. Every year, we give them soya and tur dal seeds for planting. They then sell the produce from their harvest at the nearby market. 

The results have been remarkable, with over 424 women benefiting from good crops and competitive prices in the market, helping them clear their private loans and support their children’s education. More than 60 per cent of these women are now self-independent, and they continue to inspire others in their community. Over the years, 300+ widows have chosen to move out of the programme, as they are now self-reliant and wish that others benefit like them.

In just a few short years, we have witnessed remarkable strides in our mission to provide essential support to women in need. Since May 2020, we have proudly inaugurated 15 Period Positive Holiday Homes, beginning with our first home in Tukum village, which assisted 133 women. We extended our reach and impact through strategic collaborations with like-minded partners such as Finolex Industries Ltd. In May 2021, our project expanded to Fasi Toola, benefiting 56 women, and Project Naveli in Mohali, serving 53 women. Thanks to an appeal for collaboration from Project Naveli, we established six more homes in June 2021, supported by KETTO Donors and matching funding from Project Naveli. This significant milestone has brought the total number of women benefiting from these homes to an impressive 582.

Banishing Menstruation Taboos: Period Positive Holiday Homes in Gadchiroli

In 2019, we set out to bring dignity to tribal women in Gadchiroli during their menstruating days. In many parts of India, menstruation is still shrouded in stigma and taboos, banishing menstruating women to dilapidated huts on the village outskirts. Period Huts or Kurma Ghars is an archaic practice among certain tribes like the Madias and Gonds in Gadchiroli. Instead of fighting this belief, we set about making the four-day exile into a time of relaxation, skill development and self-reliance by replacing the dilapidated huts with modern Period Positive Holiday Homes. In a stroke of genius, we even got the local men to help build these homes with the materials we provided. These homes have improved the lives of the women and generated greater awareness and respect within the villages. The initiative has become a stepping stone towards breaking age-old taboos and fostering a more inclusive and accepting society.

We provided other amenities, such as a small kitchenette with a kerosene stove, space for drying clothes, mattresses, cupboards, buckets, mugs, etc. There is greater awareness and respect generated amongst the villagers with the introduction of these Period Positive Holiday Homes. Looking at these homes, the women of Darachi village and a local NGO have asked us to support another Period Positive Holiday Home in Darachi village, and construction will soon begin with the consent of Project Naveli. 

In just a few short years, we have witnessed remarkable strides in our mission to provide essential support to women in need. Since May 2020, we have proudly inaugurated 15 Period Positive Holiday Homes, beginning with our first home in Tukum village, which assisted 133 women. We extended our reach and impact through strategic collaborations with like-minded partners such as Finolex Industries Ltd. In May 2021, our project expanded to Fasi Toola, benefiting 56 women, and Project Naveli in Mohali, serving 53 women. Thanks to an appeal for collaboration from Project Naveli, we established six more homes in June 2021, supported by KETTO Donors and matching funding from Project Naveli. This significant milestone has brought the total number of women benefiting from these homes to an impressive 582. With ongoing construction on two more homes and approval for an additional one, we are poised to continue our invaluable work, providing safe havens and essential support for women in need.

The impact is profoundly felt in several villages, where these homes have become beacons of support for women in need. In Kanal Tola, 42 women have found solace and assistance, while Pawani Tola and Waghbhumi have provided sanctuary for 49 and 50 women, respectively. The village of Yerandi has seen 62 women benefiting from these crucial resources, and in Chicholi, another 42 women have found a safe haven. Remarkably, in Motibatti, a staggering 95 women have been supported, truly emphasising the vital role these homes play in the lives of those they serve. In total, these six villages have witnessed a positive transformation in the lives of 340 women. With two more homes currently under construction and approval for an additional one, the total count of Period Positive Holiday Homes stands at an impressive 15, with further expansion on the horizon.

Supporting Vulnerable Women

We believe in leveraging partnerships to maximise our impact. Over the years, we have collaborated with organisations like Prajwala NGO to support the welfare of victims of sex trafficking and crimes in Hyderabad. Additionally, we have been working with Saheli Sangh, Pune, to provide nutritious food and milk to vulnerable women in red-light areas. Our support during the pandemic extended to 850 transgender individuals in Pune and Mumbai, where we supplied groceries to help them through difficult times. Such various partnerships have exemplified the power of collective efforts in bringing about positive change.

Education as a Key to Empowerment

We are committed to supporting adolescent girls in their education and overcoming hurdles that hinder their access to schools. We have built toilets in over 30 schools across rural Maharashtra and Gujarat to ensure hygiene and comfort for girls, encouraging them to continue their education. We also donated bicycles to Grade IX and X female students to reduce dropout rates and provide them with transportation to attend school. These initiatives aim to empower young girls, ensuring they have the tools and support they need to build a brighter future.

A School for Grandmothers

As we grow older, thumb-based biometric recognition as signatures often does not work. In June 2019, we addressed this issue by encouraging 25 senior women to become literate through “Aji Bai Chi Shala” (Grandmothers’ School) and distributing 25 school bags. This will enable them to use their signature rather than a thumb impression.

Being able to write their names instead of using their thumbprints makes the grannies feel in charge of the situation. The feeling of empowerment has piqued their interest in attending school without fail. The grandmothers’ commitment to education has not gone unnoticed.

Nurturing Seeds of Change

We believe in nurturing the seeds of change among young women leaders. Snehal Kalbhor, the youngest Sarpanch, is one such inspiring individual we have supported. She identified the lack of safe passage for the residents of Khadki village in Daund Block of Pune District of Maharashtra and reached out to us for support. She installed high mast lamps in her village to create a safer environment for women and girls. Moreover, we supported 100 students of fashion design at the ITI Girls College in Pune, where seven participants were selected to represent the Pune region at a State-level fashion contest. These initiatives demonstrate our commitment to nurturing leadership and providing platforms for young women to showcase their talents.

In collaboration with our esteemed on-ground partner, Human Efforts for Love and Peace (HELP) in Jammu and Kashmir, we reached another significant milestone. To empower vulnerable women, particularly widows and women-led farming families, we donated 100 sheep to 20 such households. This compassionate gesture supports them with a sustainable income source through sheep rearing and bolsters their overall household well-being. Recognising that such initiatives require sustained support, we remain committed to closely tracking the progress of these projects. Through regular visits and hands-on guidance over two to three years, we ensure that the beneficiaries continue to thrive and adapt our approach to provide further assistance in the most effective way possible. 

Supporting Domestic Violence Survivors in Madhya Pradesh

We are working with Action Aid International to support the Gauravi Project, which helps survivors of gender-based violence in Madhya Pradesh. The project empowers women with leadership training, education on women’s rights, vocational skills, and legal support. By supporting domestic violence survivors, we aim to create a safe and nurturing environment where women can rebuild their lives with dignity and respect. The project has completed three celebration events/meetings, reaching over 2700 women to raise awareness of gender-based violence. We trained 150 women in leadership and women’s rights. Two hundred women have been trained with new vocational skills such as auto/bus driving, beautician, computer operations, catering, mushroom cultivation, and others. Fifty-six women received employment by the end of 2022, and an additional 25 women were placed by the end of January 2023. About 14 women were facilitated to start their ventures like beauty salons and tailoring centres.

Creating Sustainable Livelihoods

In May 2021, in collaboration with The Rotary Club, South Bombay, The FICCI FLO Pune and Mumbai chapters, and our steadfast supporters, Finolex Industries, we embarked on a transformative journey. We provided beekeeping kits to 47 tribal women in Mokhada Village, Palghar District, enabling them to extract honey and start their small honey production businesses. These dedicated women, aged 25 to 45, underwent an intensive week-long honey cultivation course, delving into the intricacies of bee biology and behaviour and various beekeeping systems. This initiative has yielded substantial results, with participants earning Rs. 25,000 in one cycle as they contribute to the two annual cycles of honey production, with Khadi Gramodyog being the proud purchaser of their honey. The growing appeal of this initiative is evident in the increasing requests for support from neighbouring villages.

In March 2022, in collaboration with our esteemed on-ground partner, Human Efforts for Love and Peace (HELP) in Jammu and Kashmir, we reached another significant milestone. To empower vulnerable women, particularly widows and women-led farming families, we donated 100 sheep to 20 such households. This compassionate gesture supports them with a sustainable income source through sheep rearing and bolsters their overall household well-being. Recognising that such initiatives require sustained support, we remain committed to closely tracking the progress of these projects. Through regular visits and hands-on guidance over two to three years, we ensure that the beneficiaries continue to thrive and adapt our approach to provide further assistance in the most effective way possible. 

Women Finding Careers

In February 2020, we initiated a government-certified plumbing course at the ITI Girls College in Pune. We identified girls from the college hailing from rural areas of the Pune district and provided them with the necessary support for plumbing training, recognising the potential of these young women. Finolex Industries played a pivotal role in enhancing this course by introducing a relevant training programme. Since May 2020, Finolex has actively supported the initiative with online sessions, ensuring that the students are imparted with the latest plumbing techniques. This assistance was instrumental in enabling the completion of the curriculum within the academic year.

Furthermore, this plumbing course serves as an invaluable add-on skill to their regular curriculum in interior decoration. This additional skillset equips them with a competitive edge in their future businesses. Additionally, Finolex Industries collaborated with the Indian Plumbing Association, Pune chapter, to provide further expertise to the students. This partnership included both theoretical and practical sessions, as well as enlightening site visits.

As a testament to the success of this endeavour, the first batch of 30 girl students proudly graduated in November 2020, prepared to make a meaningful impact in plumbing and interior decoration.

We are committed to this future. We are committed to expanding our reach, exploring new initiatives, and venturing into new States to make a difference in the lives of many more individuals. We will continue to work with like-minded partners, corporations, and individuals who share our vision of a more equitable and compassionate society, ensuring that no one is left behind, where we create a world where every woman is respected, every child is educated, every community thrives, and where a brighter and more inclusive tomorrow is within reach.

Uplifting Lives with Care

Apart from supporting para-sportswomen, we have focused on differently-abled girls, providing them with surgical interventions, physiotherapy, and occupational therapy. Through these interventions, we aim to uplift their lives and make them independent, fostering an inclusive and compassionate society. We set up a call centre run by visually impaired women, empowering them to address customer queries and work from home during the pandemic. 

Prioritising Well-Being

Our commitment to women’s health includes regular mammography camps and breast cancer awareness drives. We have also partnered with hospitals to support new mothers and infants, providing them with the care and resources they need during this critical phase of life. We have funded research in cancer genome investigations and vaccinations for cervical cancer. We provided sanitary napkins and towels to thousands of girls in urban slum areas and rural districts.

An Unwavering Commitment to Empowerment

At Mukul Madhav Foundation, we firmly believe that our mission to empower and uplift is not a one-time effort but a continuous journey. As we look towards the future, we see our resolve getting stronger. There is so much more to be done, so many more little girls and women that need a small boost out of their circumstances. 

We are committed to this future. We are committed to expanding our reach, exploring new initiatives, and venturing into new States to make a difference in the lives of many more individuals. We will continue to work with like-minded partners, corporations, and individuals who share our vision of a more equitable and compassionate society, ensuring that no one is left behind, where we create a world where every woman is respected, every child is educated, every community thrives, and where a brighter and more inclusive tomorrow is within reach.

Ritu Prakash Chhabria is the Co-founder and Managing Trustee of Mukul Madhav Foundation and Non-Executive Non-Independent Director of Finolex Industries.