Empowered women are best change agents, says philanthropist Zarina Screwvala

'We are a patriarchal society. And thousands of years of societal thought is hard to change. It’s the mental attitude that needs to change,' she says on the occasion of International Day of Rural Women

For many years now, Zarina Screwvala — co-founder of Swades Foundation — has been working for the upliftment of rural life in the country, especially that of women and children. Through her foundation — that works to empower lives by covering four key areas, namely health and nutrition, education, water and sanitation, and economic development — she and her husband Ronnie Screwvala have been striving to make a difference at the grassroots, by teaming up with full-time staff members and community volunteers, to cover 2500-plus villages in the country.

On the occasion of International Day of Rural Women, Zarina interacted with indianexpress.com to highlight key problems plaguing our villages, its women and young girls, and how empowering them can bring about economic stability in the country, among other things.

Excerpts:

You have been engaged in philanthropy for so many years now — what are some of the biggest issues you have observed trouble the rural population of the country, especially women?

We believe in and work for empowered village communities, allowing all members to live a life of dignity. All means all: women, men, children, youth and the elderly. We believe the work must be sustainable and scalable; but change happens one village at a time. At our foundation, we all work for one dream — to create a model of rural empowerment that can lift a million people out of poverty every five years. An almost impossible dream, but one we deeply believe in and work for every day.

We also observed poverty is not just material but also mental, manifesting as a lack of hope, aspiration for a better life for themselves and their families. This mental poverty is a critical blockage to any kind of change, resulting in forced migration to ill-equip cities where their conditions are perhaps worse than in the village. 

Wealth in the hands of women ensures not just economic stability to the family, but it also ensures that children complete education. A woman’s role in uplifting her family is not appreciated. She may be doing the work in the fields, looking after the buffaloes and cows, walking miles for water, but she has no idea of her own worth and nor do the others in the family.  

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What are the pre-conditions for the betterment, development and empowerment of rural women? 

At Swades, we believe every life is valuable and has something to contribute. And that barriers to overall development, especially that of girls and women, are not that obvious to most. You have to know your community, love and respect them before they open out to you. And this is what we have done for 20 years and more — especially in the last six years. And the learnings have been rich and varied: 

Women can only earn a living if they have water in/near their house. When we first went to our villages, we wanted to work on girls’ schooling. The villagers laughed and said their daughters had to fetch water for almost two hours a day. We decided to work on water. It was life-changing; the girls started going to school. Women started growing a second crop, started poultry, goat rearing, dairy, stitching and a host of micro-businesses. 

Every woman must have a toilet in her home. When we first started going to our villages 20 years ago, we met women who went to the loo in the open fields before sunrise and then after sunset! They got bitten by snakes, developed kidney issues and urinary tract infections. Girls did not attend secondary school, because there was no safe place for them to go to the loo. By building 23,813 toilets, we have been able to protect women from rural Raigad. 

Victory over Water Crisis, Nandvi Adiswasiwadi situated in the hilly regions of Mangaon Block in Raigad, The uphill slope from the bore well to the village made it tougher to haul water-filled pots and water was unfit for drinking. @swadesfoundation provided Tap connections linked all the houses with the storage tank ensuring water availability. Installation of water filter ensured the provision of safe and potable water to all the houses.

A post shared by Swades Foundation (@swadesfoundation) on

Women must attend village meetings. When we first entered our villages only men attended community meetings; within two years we had equal numbers of men and women. Their regular attendance has empowered the village committees. Tribal women from Dharechiwadi, Poladpur, banned the sale and purchase of illegal alcohol in their village. They recognised alcohol menace as the biggest problem in their village’s development. 

Empowered women are the best change agents. “Because women can manage poverty, they can manage development best” — this is what Sir Fazle Hasan Abed told Ronnie and me when we visited him and his amazing organisation BRAC (Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee). I was starstruck and asked for a picture with him!

Rural or urban, women in our country have to struggle with basic rights, safety and dignity in the society… 

We are a patriarchal society. And thousands of years of societal thought is hard to change. It’s the mental attitude that needs to change. In the villages we serve in rural Maharashtra, we see a lot of hope, we see families struggle to enable their girls to go to school. As soon as water comes to their villages, the girls are in school.

Sustainable livelihood is substantial. We circulate New Orchard Saplings- in mango, in Cashew every year to our rural community in 7 blocks of #Raigad Over the last 5-6 years, we have distributed 8 LAC saplings for strengthening Livelihood. This makes an Annual Recurring income for them and makes them self-reliant.

A post shared by Swades Foundation (@swadesfoundation) on

What have been your personal struggles vis-a-vis your foundation and the humanitarian work you do? 

I have been fortunate that my struggles are related to my own deficiencies, not because I’m a woman. I come from a supportive family and have a supportive husband. I think right from day one, my parents never made me feel less valued, my school principal (Shirin Darasha of J.B. Petit Girls High School) was an inspirational firebrand and made us all feel valued.

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Can you explain the structure of Swades Foundation? 

Swades nurtures our dream of uplifting one million rural lives out of poverty every five years. We implement a 360 degree holistic model of rural development which addresses four key needs of rural communities: water and sanitation, health, education and livelihoods. These lay the foundations for strong and self-sustaining rural communities. 

Community members are empowered to make their own village development plans and Swades facilitates the interventions. We ensure community participation by small contributions or through shramdaan (voluntary labour). This, along with strong village development committees, is our approach to ensure sustainability once we exit the villages. 

We are promoting azolla and hydrophnics for green fodder to our farmers engaged in dairy. Green fodder reduces intake of concentrate feeds which in turn increases milk productivity and profitability in dairy business. Here are pics from one of the training session.

A post shared by Swades Foundation (@swadesfoundation) on

We believe true impact is not just in numbers but also when we are able to remove the mental poverty and change it to a can-do attitude. 

Our strength is 90 per cent of our full-time staff of 270 people, who work directly at the grassroots. Another 1,000 are community volunteers making us a strong execution foundation impacting over 5.5 lakh population today in 2500+ villages.

How big of a support is your husband in all your social and humanitarian endeavours?

He is not a mere support, he is working with me and our fabulous team of 1,300 people, to make our impossible dream come true!

As equal partners, what can men do to make life easier for women? 

Both men and women could begin by understanding that we each have a valuable role, a place in the world. We need to create a space to blossom. We are equal but different. Respecting this, we can make everyone’s life better.

Any advice for the women in our country who are reading this? 

Believe in yourself, in your own self-worth and dignity. We have much to bring to the world. Find out your role and be that. Don’t let anyone stop you. I also recommend being like water that is a force no one can stop. If we are hard and stone-like we can be stopped in our journey. But water always flows. A river always finds its way to the ocean.

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