When being told to “be flexible” while working in India, our team did not realize how quickly we would need to adhere to this. After spending a day in Ahmedabad, we set out for the Dungarpur district in Rajasthan in order to visit three different villages where SEWA’s Jyoti Project was underway. This would be our opportunity to see SEWA’s work first hand, and to begin to understand the impact SEWA has had on the lives of women in these villages. Some of the improvements we expected to see were in income and health, but what surprised me was how empowered the women we met were, especially in the second and third villages.
Our first meeting in Dungarpur occurred immediately after we had arrived, and was at a school where SEWA had installed solar panels on the rooftop. We met with a group of 13 women and 6 men, including the village Sarpanch (village government leader). This meeting saw the Sarpanch do most of the talking, with the women nodding in agreement to most of his statements but rarely speaking up on their own. We were able to conduct a more in-depth interview of one of the women, and only in that setting did we really start to see the effect of SEWA on her confidence and her ability to act as a leader in the area. She had seen many different levels of SEWA involvement, starting with a solar lantern and eventually seeing the installation of two handpumps, solar panels, and the development of a local area childcare center in her home. She talked about the confidence she had developed, being able to earn an income with SEWA’s help and having the courage to travel alone to Ahmedabad.
Our second and third village visits helped to solidify how empowered and confident the
women were, particularly in contrast to the first group. The women we met with were very willing to speak their mind, and be very open about what SEWA has done for them. The second village had been working with SEWA since 2007, and even though they’d been asked many times before about what the Jyoti program and SEWA has done, they were excited to share their stories with us. The third village was like this, too, even though they had only worked with SEWA for a few months. What came through when talking with the third village was the possibilities working with SEWA could provide. They were just getting familiar with the uses for their solar lanterns, and already they were discovering ways to improve their lives, from being able to work later at night, to using the lanterns overnight to keep rats away. They were excited about this piece of technology, and even more excited to learn more about its uses and what else SEWA could provide.
One of SEWA’s goals, throughout all its projects, is to promote self-reliance for its members. Dungarpur is a tough district to make a living, and any kind of assistance SEWA can provide is more than welcome.
However, the Jyoti Project has done far more than just give the women a push in the right direction. It goes beyond just income improvements, time savings, health, or education. To them, it was a way for them to be in control of their lives, a way for them to not have to rely on their husbands sending money back home from Ahmedabad. They could plan for their households, and help improve their village on their own. Given how male-centric Indian culture can be, it was a massive change, and I was honored to be able to see some of it in person.