New Delhi: It was a simple motherly desire to educate her own children, that led a rural Himachal Pradesh-based homemaker, Nirmala Kumari, to upskill herself in computer literacy and spoken English. Now a successful entrepreneur in her late 30s, not only has she turned her own life around, but stands proud as an ambassador of change in her local community as the first female licensed PWD contractor in the greater Kamand area of Himachals Mandi district.
Trained by EWOK (Enabling Women of Kamand) Society, an initiative of the Women’s Center of Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Mandi, Nirmala is among scores of valley women who, when prodded, increasingly found themselves attending Panchayat meets and training sessions, following their interests of studying further and setting up businesses — paving way for thriving women-centric entrepreneurship in a rural environment only too fraught with gendered norms of living.
The society, active in four Panchayats of Kamand, Kataula, Katindi and Navlaya, started out in 2014 with a survey of women’s education and skill levels in the valley. The results were dismal. Most women over thirty had completed only eight years of schooling, and stuck to housework and agricultural jobs. Women under thirty had completed high school and several had taken college degrees in Mandi. However, with little skill, exposure and language skills, the rural women of Mandi were limited to lower-paying jobs, unskilled jobs – gardening, work at the construction sites, and sweeping.
Challenging as it was to find a single one-size-fit-all solution to empowerment, the focus was building capacity and enabling income generation in what the women were interested in. Acting as a bridge between local women, potential employers and trainers in Kamand valley, EWOK sought to better lives through training, education, employment, or entrepreneurship. In 2017, EWOK also went the mentoring way and first assigned mentors to individual women who wished to start small businesses involved in serving the IIT Mandi community. Businesses mentored included beauty, tailoring, home cooked meals, laundry, and mushroom cultivation.
In addition to the initial certificate courses in computer literacy, spoken English training and personality development, EWOK functionaries took cue from the success of mushroom farming, observed popular local interest in agriculture and horticulture, which remains a highly-enrolled-in program till date in the hilly region, especially for older women.
“We asked them what they had been doing since they were tiny. Many of them had been helping in the agricultural and horticultural fields since they were five or six. One of our main emphasis became horticulture, and we have been very successful with women who became contractors for providing labour for the horticulture service on campus. As a new campus, there’s a lot of horticultural work,” shares IIT Mandi’s EWOK spokesperson Dr Priscilla Gonsalves. An inspiring example of this horticulture contract work is Nirmala, who was in the first batch of skills development earning certification and acquired a PWD license under the society’s mentorship in 2018.
Dr Gonsalves explains how skill-development interventions in rural economies getting increasingly exposed to modern-day demands, can transform the sociology of the area. When extra income started to trickle in through new engagements of the family’s women, men sat up and started to share the responsibilities of childcare, cooking and even cultivation. With more freedom to step out and earn, in a way that interested them, what also changed was the mode of transport – from walking to two-wheelers, buses and cars. As Dr Gonsalves says, “it opened up their world”.
Urmila, a local grassroots worker from Katindi village, involved in coordinating with the local women as well as the IIT Mandi society, iterates that engaging in pursuits that not just bring home extra money, but also grow women as individuals, is encouraging for them and their families. Frequent travel to and from Mandi, and mixing with a community of like-minded passionate women, also helps them become better-informed citizens of a participatory local ecosystem.
To that end, when training and horticultural operations halted due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, a new way out was sowing good-quality washable cotton masks as part of the Maitri Mask Abhiyaan. As part of Mahila Mandals in three panchayats in the Kamand valley, skilled women tailors collaborated with EWOK via phone and video conferences. Researched-on and tested by IIT Mandi, 3000+ masks have been manufactured till date bringing income to the women during lockdown.
With 200+ women — a significant number for sparsely-populated Himachal panchayats — benefiting from EWOK’s diverse ambit of programs so far, Dr Gonsalves sounds positive about the road ahead. What lies ahead is a focused push on the agricultural front and mentorship, along with organising women into self-help groups to tackle community issues like alcoholism and developing bigger, sustainable enterprises from women-led businesses.