IMAGINE India began with an idea, a small grant from Ram Jethmalani Foundation, New Delhi, and a tremendous amount of enthusiasm to see what is possible.
Having worked with colleagues in Pune, India, for more than ten years, I had several collaborators and friends to assist in preparing the venue, identifying the women, translating the materials, and organizing the activities.
However, together with the excitement and anticipation was apprehension about how these ideas and concepts of empowerment would be understood or actualized in this group of women from the urban slums of Pune. These women had already experienced a life time of challenges, very low income, early age of marriage, little formal education, gender discrimination, poor health, violence or other abuse. My discussions with local social activists and community organizers who have worked with these populations for many years was enlightening—there was an understanding that catalyzing human agency was a critical component of development, but how this could be accomplished within the existing 4 day curriculum was more difficult to comprehend. I, myself, had seen significant impact on people in the US, even with very disenfranchised populations, but it could be that the cultural context and life situation in the Indian slum would be lead to something entirely different.
The response to the workshop by these women was overwhelming. More than 35 women came the first day, and at least 27 women on every subsequent day. Certainly there were those who felt that it was too late for them change their own lives, but the overwhelming majority of women found inspiration and excitement with the material. Given that the empowerment process requires significant inner reflection and thought, the extent to which the women understood and utilized the information was astounding.
We collected information from all the participants and documented their learnings from the workshop. Of the 25 women that participated through the bulk of the training, all experienced inner growth, with nearly half of these women experiencing transformational growth leading to significant changes in their relationships, work or monetary situation during the course of the workshop. Surprisingly to me, the areas of greatest concern for these women were relationship and love, followed by work and their own body. What isn’t conveyed in the data collected in the interviews was the excitement and enthusiasm that continued to build day after day in the workshop. Women who had never had the experience of speaking in front of a group were now clearly articulating their stories, women who were angry with their circumstances were now able to work through towards their visions. The women ended the workshop full of inspiration, accomplishment and gratitude for their experience. Below are some stories from the women in our group:
A young woman who had been struggling with how to earn additional money said she had the courage to ask the local baker if he needed someone to assist him in his shop and was offered a part-time job to begin right after the completion of the workshop.
Another spoke about how she used to beat her son to get him to attend school. She tried another way that used kindness and love as a way to encourage her son and she saw that he went to school without incident.
Another women wondered what she could possibly dream about for herself. She remarked on the third day, “everyday, you keep talking about thinking about what our dreams are, so I finally thought what it is that I wanted. I never got a chance to finish school or learn how to read and write well. So I am thinking now that I can sit with my son once he returns from school and learn with him.”
Working with these women over the course of the workshop was a wonderful experience. They provided me with such inspiration of what is possible in the world and a greater conviction that supporting these women to be what they are fully capable of is exactly what is needed in the world. As mentioned by one of the participants in the workshop “I am going to tell everyone I know about what I learned in this workshop, this information should be spread as far it as it can go.” I totally agree.
Everyone mentioned that the Empowerment Workshop gave an invaluable opportunity to spend time with oneself and to look within, which made possible a new realization of one’s own potential. Some commonly shared feelings were: “I found a new friend in myself,” and “watering seeds and not the weeds made sense.”
A number of participants also expressed now they, “feel more confident to move ahead and look at challenges as part of life.” They found the workshop to be complementary to political work. Some have specifically mentioned that the experience of meditation has been a calming one, and that they will practice it regularly. Most have said that they had never “looked within” in this way before. This process has helped immensely to build confidence, and participants have said that they feel more positive. Participants shared that all of the seven Empowerment vital life areas are interrelated, and that they are now more empowered in each of these areas.
Some specific feedback:
“I know that it will take time for my physical health problems to heal, but what I observed is that I became much stronger mentally.”
“Emotionally I became more stable.”
“Through the Empowerment Workshop I realized that it is not selfish to want to be happy, so I started searching for what would make me happy. That has also made everyone around me happier. My husband used to start a quarrel and lay the blame on me. Now I tell him very serenely that it isn’t my fault. I also tell him not to start fights for such trivial reasons. ”
“Whenever I feel low, I remind myself about watering the seeds not the weeds and then I shake off my negative thoughts. I also ask myself why I should make myself miserable if someone tries to hurt me emotionally. I just ignore that person’s behavior. Whatever I do now, I do for my own happiness. This change has also made my son more positive because I can talk to him more positively now. Earlier I used to be afraid that my relationship with my husband might end because of the difference in our natures, but now I have been able to get rid of all that fear.”
“In spite of working in the area of health it took years to realize that I wasn’t taking care of myself. I was like a free bird before I got married, but as it happens in traditional patriarchal society, I was faced with bitter realities such as having to compromise my political beliefs once I entered the home. These conflicts had exhausted me and the impact was manifesting itself through bad emotional and physical health. I had constant cough, acidity, and irritable bowel syndrome. My irritation would mount every time I saw those who were the cause of my stress, which in turn would lead to my own stress.
“Then the Empowerment Workshop came along! I realized that the cure is not outside but inside me. I started finding time for myself. Now I don’t allow anyone to upset me— I just ignore them. My health problems are almost gone— whenever I get acidity I know that I need to give myself some positive time. I don’t waste time changing others; I have become more confident and become closer to own self. I am able to understand the root cause of the insecurities and problems of my family members. I have become stronger emotionally and have lost fear and anxiety about the future.”
Manisha Gupte, Founder MASUM, India
Thirty-seven year old Sagartai was sold into sex work at the age of 16. She was forced to marry to a man twice her age and he then sold her into sex work. Being poor and illiterate, Sagartai had very few available options in order to survive.
When she attended the Empowerment Workshop, for the first time in her life she was encouraged to envision her future. Sagartai started meeting people and searching for various livelihood opportunities. During this time one of her sex worker friends was ill and hospitalized. Many brothel keepers hire out their women to work as attendants in hospitals and Sagartai was called for that purpose. After some time at the hospital, she discussed her options with the hospital staff and managed to be trained and hired as a patient aide. Sagartai is now totally out of sex work, and she has helped two more women by motivating them to work as patient aides. All three of these women are now living comfortable lives for the first time. Sagartai's next mission is to help Saheli to register our own nursing bureau so that other women and girls can fulfill their dreams, and leave sex work!
“In the Empowerment Workshop I felt safe in sharing my most inner thoughts and fears and this does not come easy for me. Only my closest family knows my deepest fears. I felt comfort in knowing deep down we are the same . . . from wanting to be loved and cherished to wanting to be successful in money and work matters.
“Since the Empowerment Workshop my relationship with my family has improved. I am able to share my thoughts and feelings about difficult issues. More important, I can be honest with my family without feeling bad. And they can share their feelings with me without worrying that I will feel offended. My relationship with my father has also improved and we can now have a decent conversation without my resenting him for his past mistakes. I gave him a chance to explain his behavior and this allowed me to see things from his position.
Twenty–five year old Nanda is a sex worker who has had the HIV infection for the past six years. In spite of continuous counseling, Nanda was not taking her HIV medicine and her health was deteriorating very fast. Our counselors discovered that Nanda's main psychological issue was extremely low self-esteem with almost no will to survive. She was invited to attend the four-day Empowerment Workshop with the agreement that if it was not helpful to her she could leave at any time. On the first day, Nanda didn’t participate but she carefully observed. She listened as other women shared their views, stories, and emotions. On the second day during the body session, as Nanda was guided to have a dialog with her body, she started crying and shouting with anger. As the Saheli staff worked with her, Nanda revealed tremendous suppressed anger about being infected with HIV by the man she loved and considered her husband. She had never shared any of these feelings before. As the staff and all the other women in the workshop supported her, Nanda realized that she was not alone and that she had every right to take care of herself.
Immediately after the workshop, Nanda started her medicine. She has improved health, 100 percent adherence to her medical regime, and vastly improved self-esteem. She has become a volunteer for Saheli to help other HIV positive women to stay the course with their medication.
Twenty–four year old Maya was sold into sex work by her parents at the age of 17. Maya was always in debt as her parents took her money from the brothel keeper who in turn insisted that Maya pay the interest rate of 20 percent per month. To meet the constant demand for money, Maya was seeing eight to ten customers a day. Very much aware of HIV, Maya still underwent regular health checkups and blood tests. In 2013 Maya became a member of Saheli attending all trainings conducted by the staff. Not surprisingly, the Saheli counselors found deeply suppressed anger, trauma, and a total lack of trust in any relationship on Maya’s part.
When Saheli offered the four-day Empowerment Workshop to Maya, she readily accepted. She was totally present but not sharing her own personal story until the emotions part of the workshop. Then Maya broke down, and once she started crying it was very difficult for her to stop; the dam had broken open. Finally she said, “After so many years at last I have cried and I feel so relieved!” She shared how difficult it was for her to forgive her parents for forcing her into this life. “Why me? I used to love my parents so much! How they can take me for granted and use me as a money-making machine?” After sharing her story and listening to experiences of other women, Maya came up with the intention of having a very open and genuine communication with her mother and father. She would tell them, “I take total control over my life. I relieve you from the responsibility of being my parents, and I live for myself.”
Fifteen days after the Empowerment Workshop Maya’s parents again came to take money from the brothel keeper. Maya firmly and confidently dealt the situation, making it very clear to her parents that she would now live on her own and was breaking all ties with them. A Saheli counselor was present with Maya supporting her to make the new arrangement with the brothel keeper. Now you can find a newly empowered Maya; she is saving money, attending literacy class, going to complete her high school education, and looking for a job. Last month she satisfied her debt to the brothel keeper. Now we see a young woman aspiring to fulfill her dreams for a good life where she is in charge, and living with confidence, identity, and dignity.
Stories submitted by Tejaswi Sevakari, executive director, Saheli, India.