Sterlite Technologies Limited: Shaping Socio-Economic Transition Into the Art of Possible

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“There is no tool for development more effective than the empowerment of women.”
– Kofi Annan, Former 
Secretary-General of the United Nations.

Akanksha Sharma

India, a land of contrast, presents a socio-cultural dichotomy that often nurtures divergent shades. It is also an account of the inherent challenges and discriminations that have been stymying the optimum progress of almost half of the population. While the Indian Constitution duly recognises the rights of women to self-actualisation, even after seven decades of its adoption, the on-ground situation is a lot different.

Gender Equality: A Persistent Issue

The picture painted by the UN India Business Forum (UNIBF) about the country’s gender equality landscape is not very encouraging. It reports that at 29 per cent, the current representation of women in the nation’s labour force and entrepreneurial pursuits has declined since 2004 and suffers from acutely limited access to essential financial aids and operational supports. Moreover, while women comprise 40 per cent of the agricultural labour, they enjoy ownership of only 9 per cent of arable land. Consequently, India can ascribe merely 17 per cent of its GDP to the contribution by women, alow metric compared to the global average of over 37 per cent that, in turn, undercuts its performance in various other global socio-economic indexes.

In a country as culturally diverse and economically fragmented as India, the efforts of the governments to drive penetrative gender parity need to be reinforced through active corporate participation. As reported by a UNDP study, the top 100 firms in India have spent merely 4 per cent of their CSR expenditure on Women Empowerment, and there exist glaring gaps in programme designs. There is a dire need to strengthen intervention through comprehensive approaches in this area if we are looking for a more progressive and inclusive future for women in India.

The root cause of such a lopsided milieu is the fundamental flaw in the typical Indian perception around the concept of womanhood and its perceived inadequacies that subject a girl child to multitudes of restrictions in all phases of life, right from her birth. Unfortunately, the examples set by our women stalwarts both at home and abroad have so far failed to pull a broad brush of positive change over the status quo. The answer and a sustainable solution lie at the bottom of the social pyramid through the economic empowerment of countless women across the subcontinent who battle daily in the shadows, with the vagaries of life to make ends meet.

In a country as culturally diverse and economically fragmented as India, the efforts of the governments to drive penetrative gender parity need to be reinforced through active corporate participation. As reported by a UNDP study, the top 100 firms in India have spent merely 4 per cent of their CSR expenditure on Women Empowerment, and there exist glaring gaps in programme designs. There is a dire need to strengthen intervention through comprehensive approaches in this area if we are looking for a more progressive and inclusive future for women in India.

Jeewan Jyoti: Empowering Women to Empower Next Generations

As an Indian corporation with a global presence, we at Sterlite Technologies Limited (STL) have associated ourselves with the cause of women empowerment as early as 2008. We realised that, at a strategic level, to deliver meaningful thrusts towards UN Sustainable Development Goal 5, it is imperative to operate near the grassroots and strive resolutely to give cognizance to the hopes and aspirations of women; simultaneously addressing the baseless apprehensions of society about professional women. It is because empowered women are harbingers and sustainers of economic momentum, not only for themselves but for the society in general, which leads to change that spans across generations.

 To ensure women across age-groups are covered, the programme has also created adequate livelihood opportunities through local Self-Help Groups (SHGs) and a production house. This ensures financial independence and resilience. The underlying intent is to set a sound foundation of development for these women and unleash a positive ripple effect in terms of economy, culture and mindset to cover their dependencies across the community where they live and thrive.

The Jeewan Jyoti Women Empowerment Programme (JJWEP) was launched on September 5, 2014, as a culmination of this conviction. The programme focuses on creating holistic change in the rural landscape of Pune – in 100 villages across Bhor, Velhe and Haveli Talukas. The region is an ideal testbed for interventions by representing in microcosm the typical factors that are inhibiting comprehensive and relevant women empowerment in the rest of the country: low female literacy rate of just about 59 per cent against 75 per cent male literacy, poor access to female healthcare and hygiene, gender disparity and skewed workforce participation, persisting social taboos regarding working women or choosing a career in nursing or even being allowed to ride a bicycle, suboptimal connectivity, intensive engagement of women in the agricultural sector, which is over 90 per cent, and of course, high social odds stacked against women, influencing their life choices. 

As a social transition project, JJWEP probed existing women empowerment gaps to design a comprehensive ecosystem targeted at the wholesome transformation. Alongside ensuring Gender Equality, it is also seamlessly aligned with the UN Sustainable Goals of No Poverty (Goal 1), Good Health & Well Being (Goal 3), Quality Education (Goal 4), Decent Work & Economic Growth (Goal 8), Reduce Inequalities (Goal 10) and Partnership for the Goals (Goal 17). The programme commenced in 2014 in and around Ambavane, about 50 km from Pune, with a mission to expose underprivileged rural women to high-quality learning and professional development courses in their formative years. To ensure women across age-groups are covered, the programme has also created adequate livelihood opportunities through local Self-Help Groups (SHGs) and a production house. This ensures financial independence and resilience. The underlying intent is to set a sound foundation of development for these women and unleash a positive ripple effect in terms of economy, culture and mindset to cover their dependencies across the community where they live and thrive.

To reach out to women at the grassroots and help them earn a livelihood, we have leveraged Self-Help Groups. While the SHG members possess the traditional know-hows of agriculture, horticulture and handicrafts, we upskill and train them on bookkeeping, accounts, management and entrepreneurship. This is strengthened through support with microfinancing through nationalised banks and guidance on setting up their enterprises.

Educating Women and, thus, Families

At present, JJWEP operates through an elaborate network of people, processes and partners. It imparts strong vocational and interpersonal skills through a blend of domain-specific and soft acumen. These are focused on the transformation and employability of the participants into self-confident agents of change who can confidently voice their opinion in the decision-making process and command due respect in their families and community backdrops.

The JJWEP runs six-month vocational courses in skills like tailoring and cutting, fashion designing, MS Office application, data entry operations, fashion designing, beauty culture and a year-long course in nursing, which are certified by the Maharashtra State Board of Vocational Education Examination (MSBVEE). These courses are formulated to meet the latest industry standards and are delivered by experienced and qualified faculties. Along with this, the candidates are also taken through Personality Development Sessions that include English speaking courses, field visits, industrial exposures, yoga and other essential life skills inputs to attain a high level of awareness on social, political, financial and legal issues. Other daily needs of women like nutritious food, counselling, transportation, proper wellness and hygiene and creche services to support young mothers are also taken care of.

Upskilling Women to Help Them Earn Livelihoods

To reach out to women at the grassroots and help them earn a livelihood, we have leveraged Self-Help Groups. While the SHG members possess the traditional know-hows of agriculture, horticulture and handicrafts, we upskill and train them on bookkeeping, accounts, management and entrepreneurship. This is strengthened through support with microfinancing through nationalised banks and guidance on setting up their enterprises. Online and offline market linkages are even facilitated to ensure that these artisans and entrepreneurs are not just restricted to local markets in and around their villages, but can access a national customer base.

The programme also benefits substantially from regularly interfacing with our main human resource base. As part of the Saksham employee volunteering initiative, our employees can volunteer for interactive learning and mentoring sessions to contribute purposefully to enhancing the emotional, social and professional maturity of the JJWEP participants. An internship for the top MS office students also provides these women with essential work experience and an understanding of the corporate environment.

The right of a woman to be empowered and attain her best self is not only an inalienable human right but also a strategic imperative for India to retain its global economic competitiveness. Notwithstanding the tireless attempts by the public and the private sector entities to ameliorate historical wrongs, the ideal scenario remains one where such rights no longer have to be pushed through but flows profusely and perennially from the existing social dynamics.

Long Journey Covered, But a Longer Way to Go

Although we started the Jeewan Jyoti Women Empowerment Programme (JJWEP) with moderate origins, it has achieved substantial feats within a little over half a decade of its existence. Beginning the voyage with only 93 students from across 40 villages, the programme now covers over 2200 beneficiaries in more than 130 villages, impacting 11,000+ lives in the process. Among its alumni, 400+ women are running their businesses successfully, and over 130 women are placed in highly paid positions in administration, hospitality and education. On the SHG front, significant traction has been generated with the formation of 50 Self-Help Groups across 18 villages, and microfinancing of Rs 55 Lakhs has been disbursed through the nationalised banks to help them scale their operations. Additionally, now more than 900 women appreciate the implications of staying healthy and fit and 500+ are empowered through digital literacy and awareness initiatives. The trend towards attaining financial stability has also influenced the demographics, pushing the average age of marriage for women in the region to over 21 years and has added Rs 2k – Rs 15k per month to family incomes.

Subhani Deshpande
Rupali Dimble

The achievements of these women are not only changing the age-old mindset of these rural societies but also helping those around them to move up the social ladder. While the numbers speak for themselves, at JJWEP, a success story is written almost daily. For instance, Subhani Kiran Deshpande, a resident of Dhangawadi village whose education was interrupted by an early marriage. However, her zeal to succeed brought her to the Jeewan Jyoti Women Empowerment Programme after 14 years and got her enrolled in the Data Entry course. The high-quality learning and constant motivation from her mentors helped her to graduate with flying colours, landing a job of a Data Entry Operator at the local Gram Panchayat Office. Today, her monthly salary of Rs 8000 complements her family’s income from farming, assuring proper education for her children. Equally inspiring is the story of Rupali Dimble whom JJWEP transformed from being a shy girl to a confident tailoring professional, running her own business and eventually a Yashogatha Award winner.

The right of a woman to be empowered and attain her best self is not only an inalienable human right but also a strategic imperative for India to retain its global economic competitiveness. Notwithstanding the tireless attempts by the public and the private sector entities to ameliorate historical wrongs, the ideal scenario remains one where such rights no longer have to be pushed through but flows profusely and perennially from the existing social dynamics. The struggle is not just about evolving the socio-economic standings of women, but also about the ablution of the collective community psyche to usher in a new era, that Uma Pandit, a JJWEP student beautifully describes in her prize-winning essay: “A time when people on both sides of the gender divide will no longer have to be reminded of her indispensability to human existence and prosperity.”

Akanksha Sharma is Head CSR and Sustainability, STL. She drives a portfolio of community projects aligned with the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Akanksha brings in experience from organisations such as UNICEF, Jubilant Food Works and Vedanta. Bringing an extensive experience of over a decade in advising Boards/Leadership on Sustainable Business Practices, CSR & Public Policy, she has been developing organisational approaches to establish strategic partnerships and institutional engagement with key traditional and non-traditional allies, positioning the organisation as a thought leader on key policy issues.