Empowering the last mile facilitators

Vinaya Patil
Thursday, 11 October 2018

Prema Gopalan of the Swayam Shikshan Prayog (SSP) talks about women as the best medium to enable development in the real sense as she shares with us the story of SSP

Women’s active involvement in rehabilitation has often fast-tracked processes. This is the core belief on which Swayam Shikshan Prayog was set up and continues to impact the lives of hundreds of women across six states in India.

Over the last two decades, Swayam Shikshan Prayog (SSP) has built a movement of grassroots women leaders who see opportunities in challenges. One of the many people behind this organisation — Prema Gopalan, is the finalist of this year’s Social Entrepreneur of the Year (SEOY) award.

The Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, a sister organisation of the World Economic Forum and the Jubilant Bhartia Foundation of Jubilant Bhartia Group, recently announced the finalists of the Social Entrepreneur of the Year (SEOY) — India 2018 Award.

It included Gopalan along with Smita Ram and Ramakrishna N K of Rang De, Bengaluru and Jessica Mayberry and Stalin K of Video Volunteers (VV), Goa.

SSP’s transformative models in key sectors like climate-resilient agriculture, health and water and sanitation are creating impact in India’s most underserved communities. Their partnership approach has enabled a wide range of stakeholders that enable grassroots women’s networks to access skills and entrepreneurship, finance, technology and marketing platforms.

The organisation has, over the last 25 years of its existence, enabled women farmers and entrepreneurs who have demonstrated public leadership in fighting climate change by ensuring food security, increasing incomes, creating jobs, boosting local economies and advocating with government.

“I want to recharge the groundwater sources in my village, and fight climate change,” says Uma Shitole from Maharashtra.
“Such grassroots women are no longer perceived as beneficiaries; instead they have emerged as partners in driving the initiatives and creating lasting impact,” says Gopalan, as she goes on to explain the story behind the birth of SSP. “It all began in 1993 after the Latur earthquake which saw massive damage to life and property. 

We realised that most of the rehabilitation activities were men-centric and women were largely out of the picture. We decided to reach out to these women. While it was initially difficult to spot them, given their traditional roles limited to the house, once we began reaching out, the rehabilitation fastened,” she explains, adding that when it came to their houses and families, women were much more invested in reforming and establishing ground.

This model was later followed in Bhuj after the earthquake and in Marathwada which is infamous for being severely drought-hit. Now the organisation also plans to reach Kerala. Evidence from SSP’s change stories shows that the time has come for key stakeholders such as government and international agencies to recognise the critical role of grassroots women as knowledge experts in leading the change in climate-threatened geographies. “They are the best last mile facilitators,” says Gopalan.

By tapping the power of rural women’s groups in water-scarce and climate-threatened regions, SSP has opened up non-traditional livelihood incomes and tripled household earnings. In the last eight years, SSP’s interventions have spawned over 1,45,000 rural women entrepreneurs, farmers and business leaders, who have impacted over five million people to date.

The key impact areas of SSP have been Climate Resilience and Food Security in Agriculture, Health, Water and Sanitation, Clean Energy and Climate Change and Women’s Entrepreneurship and Leadership.

As the groups and federations matured, SSP’s focus shifted from grant projects to a market based approach that would engage women networks in rural markets. In 2006, SSP scaled up its micro-finance and livelihood approach by facilitating the entry of grassroots  women’s groups and federations into emerging rural markets by creating social enterprises.

SSP has this year also begun what it calls the Unnati Fellowship for Women Changemakers. After receiving close to 250 applications from women across six states, 25 fellows were chosen post rigorous screening processes. These women now lead change not just in their villages, but across communities. One such women, Priyanka Pasle from Maharashtra, a widow herself, says that she wishes to provide skilled widows the “opportunities they lack to become self-reliant.”

Speaking of the challenges that SSP faced, Gopalan says that the lack of eco-system for rural entrepreneurship for women from low income families was one. SSP thus organised 1,000 women from around 500 villages of Osmanabad and Latur into a social network of Samvad Sahayaks. Such initiatives have helped women stay in the focus. “The lack of land titles among women has been a major challenge too. Most of the land and houses are owned by males, and that makes them the obvious beneficiaries of any government schemes as also hampers finance options for women,” she says.

The organisation now looks forward to scaling the impact achieved to outreach over 2,00,000 farmers and entrepreneurs over the next five years.

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