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Prema Gopalan’s belief in women’s leadership has won worldwide acknowledgement


By Moin Qazi* 
More than 26 years ago, in 1993, the Latur district in the Marathwada region of Maharashtra was jolted by an earthquake that left a trail of mass destruction. It was India’s most devastating earthquake of the 20th century that left nearly 10,000 dead. It ravaged and obliterated vast swathes of villages and uprooted multitudes of people.
Today, several thousand women among those severely affected by the tragedy are recognised as transformational leaders. How these semi-literate and impoverished women converted adversity into opportunity is a saga of grit and tenacity. The glue that bonded them and provided the necessary impetus was a passionate and indefatigable social entrepreneur, Prema Gopalan. Schooled and trained in disaster management, she began rehabilitation work among these women and in 1998 formally launched Swayam Shikshan Prayog (SSP) (self-education for empowerment) with a larger and long-term mission of self-empowerment and self-learning.
The crisis and the resulting social mobilisation for reconstructing villages transformed trauma into hope and nudged people to create a larger community-centred model for enhancing resilience. The initial success revealed to Prema the gold mine she had struck of rural women with the tenacity to handle local development and governance. She fanned their spark of perseverance into a flame that shines across the region’s development canvas.
Recognizing a woman’s inherent power to change the world, Prema Gopalan established Swayam Shikshan Prayog in 1998. Setting in motion a movement that spread across seven states, she inspired 300,000 rural women to shrug off archaic notions of self and carve new identities as entrepreneurs, farmers and community leaders.
Building on thei capacities of these women, Prema steered them through a broad-based development strategy of economic and social empowerment. It helped her conceptualise the broad vision for SSP which lay in promoting processes which are socially inclusive, sustainable and gender equitable. SSP’s core focus areas are: skill building and entrepreneurship; climate resilient farming; women’s leadership; clean energy; health, water and sanitation. SSP’s work now straddles 2,000 villages in 25 districts across seven states. It has empowered about 2 lakh women entrepreneurs, farmers and community leaders and positively impacted more than 5 million people in under-served communities.
Prema’s work has won appreciation and support from the highest forums. She is a recipient of the Social Entrepreneur of the Year Award (2018) from the Schwab Foundation. SSP has received a large number of awards including the Equator Prize, 2017 from the UNDP and UNFCCC Momentum for Change Award, 2016 for Communities and Climate Change.
Rural women are the human face of poverty and development. They toil on their farms but lack access to land titles and are, therefore, not recognised as farmers. This, in turn, denies them access to finance, state entitlements, training, technology and markets. SSP is driving several initiatives that address major challenges like food security and climate change through organic agriculture and social entrepreneurship.
SSP’s Women’s Initiative to Learn and Lead (WILL) is creating a new definition for bottom-up redevelopment that repositions grassroots women as changemakers who address community challenges through innovation and partnership with key stakeholders. Its training and mentorship ecosystem provides women business skills, financial literacy, marketing support and links to large companies through a last-mile distribution network, and start-up capital.
Since 2009, its rural B-school has spawned a mass-level movement of grassroots women entrepreneurs running varied small businesses and production units. They are actively involved in community decision-making and local governance and have increased the access of women to social entitlements, economic resources, health and basic services. These women entrepreneurs embrace community leadership by propagating clean and green practices in the context of climate change. Currently, an active network of 1,250 women entrepreneurs is working across eight districts in India. They are the most trusted allies in the battle against climate change which is having devastating impacts and threatens to roll back the gains we’ve made on poverty, health and more.
The SSP model comprises four ventures: A resilience fund for women-led businesses; a fraternity of 5,000 self-help groups networked through federations; a rural school of entrepreneurship and leadership for women which provides business, financial and marketing skills; and a market aggregator that provides warehousing, branding, marketing and distribution services to last-mile businesswomen. The consortium nurtures the value chains and entrepreneurial ecosystems that women need to succeed in remote and opaque markets.
SSP’s Climate Resilience Farming model repositions women as farmers and promotes food, nutrition and income and water security. One of the most revolutionary contributions of SSP is in bringing about this shift to sustainable farming and the protection of water and natural resources through climate-resilient and nutrition-sensitive farming. The role of women as farm managers has traditionally been obscured by the image of men as primary decision-makers on farms. Prema wants to fix this lack of equilibrium. These women are becoming active decision-makers on core issues like growing crops, conserving natural resources and increasing biodiversity.
The number of households who have become climate-resilient is already statistically significant, but for a wider transformation, many more need to be encouraged to shift to this eco-friendly means of livelihood. Being able to achieve this transition is certainly a critical piece of the empowerment puzzle.
SSP has also pioneered the region’s “one-acre farming”. Instead of the traditional approach of focusing on water-guzzling kharif crops like rice and onion, these women have placed the nutritional needs of their families first. The women are reviving the traditional knowledge and skills of local ecology-based farming. Multiple crops are grown to cope with the caprices of climate and boost soil fertility, nutritional security, farm biodiversity and income viability. Women use local seeds and sustainable inputs such as bio-pesticides, hydroponics, organic fertilisers and low-cost water conservation techniques like drip irrigation, sprinklers, recharging of bore wells, farm ponds and tree plantation to boost scarce groundwater and improve soil health.
Women have been able to convince their spouses to lend them a patch of their land so that they could use it for growing organic food crops — vegetables, fruits and local grains and pulses — staving off hunger for their families. They are pairing crops that are best for each other.
Thus, most farmers are now practicing diversified organic farming. This represents a small revolution, as women are growing crops by themselves and are using only organic inputs. Economic migration has reduced, especially amongst women. There has been a reduction in hunger, increased food security and improved health outcomes.
SSP has also created a dedicated tribe of “seed guardians” and “seed mothers”. Empowering women farmers to manage their own seed enterprises is enabling them to become decision-makers in the community. They are thus conserving the indigenous seed heritage and protecting its food sovereignty. Seeds are at the heart of agriculture, but they are also a significant cost for farmers. Organic seeds are hard to come by in a market flooded with genetically modified and hybrid seeds. Conserving organic seeds that are suited to the soil and as a climate adaptation measure is a priority for smallholders.
SSP has also built a support system of village-level networks of entrepreneurs known as sakhis (friends). An innovative intervention is in rural healthcare. These Arogya Sakhis are community members who receive basic training and live and work in the communities they serve. They are equipped with health devices, such as glucometers, blood pressure machines. Along with a mobile tablet, they visit rural women door-to-door to conduct basic medical tests.
These women conduct a series of preventive tests using mobile health devices, capture the data by using a tablet and upload the results on the cloud server developed by our technology partner. The data is then shared with a doctor, who analyses it and provides a report and prescriptions over the cloud. The sakhis then guide the patients on the treatment and precautions to be taken. Wherever needed, they are referred to hospitals for further treatment.
SSP’s approach remains continually relevant because it keeps reinventing itself, It helps in reinvigorating the internal environment as well. There are lessons, both optimistic and cautionary, to be learned from SSP’s experiences. Beneficiary-centric perspective is the antidote for the widespread failure of top-down development programs. At the same time, creating programmes that work is important, but just as critical as scaling up those programmes. We need to work towards practical solutions rather than merely changing the mindsets of people.
Women serve critical roles in providing familial and societal stability, and their empowerment is crucial to the modern development agenda. Giving women the tools they need to succeed is a requisite to ensure the ultimate prosperity of their communities. Despite the prevailing social patriarchy and cultural obstacles, women are changing perceptions and creating businesses that have a real impact on their communities and beyond. In rewriting the rules of the economy and society, they are challenging the status quo. Prema Gopalan’s pioneering work with women can serve as an enlightening model for more meaningful and relevant policy discourses.
These women have now learned to shrug off archaic notions of self and carve new identities as entrepreneurs, farmers and community leaders. Under the guidance and leadership of cooperatives and NGO leaders these
‘Sakhis’ as these women have been lovingly called in the local development ecosystem are impacting every facet of their society today. With a strong vision of a developed community, they are battling issues of agriculture, nutrition water, health, and civic leadership, creating thriving models of development.
The NGOs who are spearheading the leadership training for these women have set up a strong support network, offering incubation and business development services to equip the women with critical skills required to exercise their leadership in governance, financial management agriculture, entrepreneurship, sustainable livelihoods, clean energy, environment, climate-resilient health, water, sanitation and nutrition, etc. Prema’s intrinsic belief in women leadership has garnered worldwide interest and acknowledgement.
In a glittering career she received several national and international awards. Most recently she was the recipient of the 2021 Women Transforming India Award, NITI Aayog’s flagship initiative which honours women entrepreneurs bringing transformational changes in India. She was the recipient of the Parkhe Foundation’s “Adarsha Mata Puraskar” for her indomitable courage in adverse situations and to have raised women in her community to become successful leaders, Roddenberry Foundation’s +1Global Fund in recognition of the impactful work during COVID pandemic across adversely affected communities, 2019 Schwab Foundation’s “Outstanding Social Entrepreneur of the Year” (WEF), 2018 Schwab Foundation’s “Social Entrepreneur of the Year India”, 2017 UNDP’s “Equator Prize”, 2016 UNFCCC’s “Momentum for Change Lighthouse”, and an Ashoka Globalizer, a Synergos Fellow and Womanity Foundation’s women change-makers India Fellow.

*Development expert

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