New Delhi: Gender equality and women’s empowerment are not only fundamental human rights but also a necessary foundation for a peaceful, prosperous, and sustainable world. There has been progress over the last decades, and the process of making it happen is ongoing. In India as well, gender equality is a desired state of equal access to resources and opportunities for all genders, and several organisations are working towards bridging the gender gap and providing opportunities to achieve gender equality and women’s empowerment. One such organisation that has taken multiple initiatives in this regard is the Swades Foundation.
Speaking to the NDTV-Dettol Banega Swasth India team, on the occasion of International Women’s Day 2023 on March 8, Swades Co-founder Zarina Screwvala discusses the work the organisation has done towards education, water, sanitation, health, poverty reduction, rural development, and much more. Ms. Screwvala shared how Swades has worked towards the upliftment of women and girls through their various programmes such as Swades Mitra and the scholarship programme among others. Founded in 1983, the organisation was known as SHARE up until 2013 and renamed as the Swades Foundation in 2013.
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NDTV: What led to the inception of Swades Foundation?
Zarina Screwvala: It has been a wonderful experience and a brilliant 10 years. Swades has been one of the oldest organisations, but if I take the last ten years into account, we have expanded our dream of uplifting and empowering one million people out of poverty every five years. We have not achieved it, but we are definitely on the right track. Our reach now is three quarters of a million people, and our idea is to create a model of development that is replicable and sustainable. We have found over the years that the key to achieving that is by empowering the community, and that is where our 360-degree model of rural development fits, which has multiple dimensions and effects. The model includes providing drinking water in every household, individual household toilets, education, a better livelihood, and better health.
When we started, everybody laughed at us, and said that we should focus only on one thing and do it well. In fact, we did extensive research on various NGOs, government works, etc., and a lot of work was done, but a lot more was left, so we stepped in. We were sure that we didn’t just have one goal but many, and we wanted to work towards them all. We must understand that sanitation, education, and health are all connected and result in the empowerment of not just women but every gender.
NDTV: As a woman leader, can you share the challenges and experiences you have had in your journey?
Zarina Screwvala: One of the greatest learning experiences is that empowered women in rural areas are the best changemakers. When these women are empowered, the whole community changes. This makes me realise time and again how important it is to hear a woman out and address her concerns at all levels because it benefits the larger part of society. And that is what Swades tries to do: help women voice their concerns and be the changemakers.
NDTV: What are some of the issues women are facing in achieving gender equality? What are your observations on the matter?
Zarina Screwvala: The concept of equality starts in the mind, and so we need to work at the grassroot level of empowering men and women to set their mindsets towards equality and see themselves as leaders of the change. It is important to include the men to allow the women to blossom, and we have done it in the last ten years through our ‘Swades Mitra’ programme. Through the program, we form a village development committee (VDC) in each village, in which men and women are members in equal numbers and work towards the welfare of the community. The VDC members have taken several steps towards maintaining equality in every household. I would like to give the example of Janamwadi village in Maharashtra, where the VDC members decided to put the woman’s name outside the house. One of the girls told me,
The nameplate speaks of our place in the household. It may seem like a small thing, but it is very empowering to see our names at the front door.
NDTV: What other issues do you see that you think need to be spoken about?
Zarina Screwvala: Besides empowerment, which is the essence and key, the lack of water and sanitation also creates a tremendous amount of gender inequality. How does this happen? Let’s consider a village that has no drinking water, who is fetching the water in those households there? The woman and the eldest girl child of the house, who may have dropped out of school to help the mother. The man is out there, working and earning for the family, and there is no inequality on this part. So, the women are left to fetch water, walking miles twice or three times a day, further deteriorating their health. So, tap water and clean drinking water are dreams for them.
When we speak about sanitation in the remote parts, we have observed that women go out at 4:00 a.m., in the dark. There is not just a risk from wild animals and insects, but their safety also is compromised. Later, they go to the same area at 11 at night after giving dinner to their families. So, after 4:00 a.m. and up until 11:00 p.m., these women don’t visit the place. So you can imagine that the health, dignity, and safety of a woman are compromised due to the lack of a toilet facility at home. The Swades Foundation does a lot of work providing toilets in households and schools. These are basic facilities, according to us, but not for all.
NDTV: How important is it to leverage education, water, and sanitation as a pathway to achieve gender equality?
Zarina Screwvala: It is very vital. There was a study done by the NGO Dasara in 2019, according to which nearly 23 million girls drop out of school annually in India due to a lack of proper sanitation and hygiene management facilities in schools, which include the availability of sanitary pads and information about menstruation. So, this is a great example to understand the importance of water and sanitation facilities to achieve gender equality.
Speaking of education, if we see, a boy in the family is given more priority than a girl after Class 10, to pursue further studies, especially in the rural areas. In our society, a male is considered the primary breadwinner. So, to address this problem, our foundation has a scholarship programme for both men and women, but we have had mostly girls as beneficiaries. Most of them are now lawyers, doctors, architects, and many more. Most of these children have returned to their villages and implemented their knowledge for the welfare of the village. So, education also addresses the problem of poverty.
Scholarships give a child the wonderful ability to dream.
NDTV: How important are public and private partnerships towards making a healthier India?
Zarina Screwvala: It is very important. The government is a magnificent machine and has huge machinery, but I have found that there is a trust deficit between the rural community and the government, and the involvement of non-profit organisations can help bridge that gap. We need to understand that all of us have a role to play in solving the problems of poverty, health, sanitation, and education, among others. Ms. Screwvala said,
You don’t have to be rich to give or make a difference.
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NDTV – Dettol have been working towards a clean and healthy India since 2014 via the Banega Swachh India initiative, which is helmed by Campaign Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan. The campaign aims to highlight the inter-dependency of humans and the environment, and of humans on one another with the focus on One Health, One Planet, One Future – Leaving No One Behind. It stresses on the need to take care of, and consider, everyone’s health in India – especially vulnerable communities – the LGBTQ population, indigenous people, India’s different tribes, ethnic and linguistic minorities, people with disabilities, migrants, geographically remote populations, gender and sexual minorities. In wake of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the need for WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) is reaffirmed as handwashing is one of the ways to prevent Coronavirus infection and other diseases. The campaign will continue to raise awareness on the same along with focussing on the importance of nutrition and healthcare for women and children, fight malnutrition, mental wellbeing, self care, science and health, adolescent health & gender awareness. Along with the health of people, the campaign has realised the need to also take care of the health of the eco-system. Our environment is fragile due to human activity, which is not only over-exploiting available resources, but also generating immense pollution as a result of using and extracting those resources. The imbalance has also led to immense biodiversity loss that has caused one of the biggest threats to human survival – climate change. It has now been described as a “code red for humanity.” The campaign will continue to cover issues like air pollution, waste management, plastic ban, manual scavenging and sanitation workers and menstrual hygiene. Banega Swasth India will also be taking forward the dream of Swasth Bharat, the campaign feels that only a Swachh or clean India where toilets are used and open defecation free (ODF) status achieved as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, can eradicate diseases like diahorrea and the country can become a Swasth or healthy India.