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Five women who are unleashing ripples of positive change in rural India

On International Women’s Day, celebrate these pathbreakers who are making a difference at the grassroots level by addressing issues ranging from water scarcity, gender inequality to inclusive development_

After a gap of 11 years in February 2024, the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) under the aegis of the Union Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation released data on national household consumption expenditure. It also threw light upon the gaping divide between the richest and the poorest in India and revealed that the average MPCE (Monthly Per Capita Consumption Expenditure) for the bottom five percent of the population was just Rs 1,373 in the rural areas. In simple terms, the daily expenditure by the poorest five percent in rural areas was a meagre Rs 46, compared to Rs 350 for the richest five percent.

In order to bring about lasting change, there is a need for policy interventions but social initiatives helmed by change-makers who respect the socio-economic and cultural diversity of rural India, can also make a huge difference. This International Women’s Day, meet five women who are working to uplift rural communities and address issues like water scarcity, gender equality, environmental conservation, and sustainable development among many others.

*Kiran Rao (Film-maker and co-founder of Paani Foundation):* In the news for her latest film ‘Laapataa Ladies,’ Kiran Rao is a producer, director, and screenwriter who presents social realities in her cinema with disarming empathy and warmth. A case in point was her production ‘Peepli Live’ (2010) which dwelled upon the insensitive manner in which rural poverty is depicted by the media. She co-founded the Paani Foundation with actor Aamir Khan in 2016 and has worked towards alleviating water scarcity in rural Maharashtra. The Paani team has strived over the years to make Maharashtra drought-free and to protect farming communities from debt, forced migration, and withered crops. After learning that the water crisis is largely due to water and resource mismanagement, Kiran and her team have worked to eradicate the problem with scalable scientific solutions, conservation strategies, community participation, and environment restoration.

*Dolly Verma (Nguvu Change Leader, Female Sarpanch, Bihar):* As a prominent change leader, Dolly Sarpanch is questioning normative gender roles and shattering stereotypes by rising to a position traditionally dominated by men. Even as she works to bring about social justice and gender parity in Bihar with grassroots activism as a Sarpanch, she is challenging the deeply entrenched tradition of ‘Sarpanch Pati’ which allows the husbands of elected women representatives to take decisions on their behalf. This has brought her into direct conflict with patriarchal structures within her community and beyond but she soldiers on and continues to address issues such as women’s right to occupy seats of power and their equal participation in policy decisions. She is also working to promote transparency and accountability in local governance and to uplift marginalized communities by making clean water, sanitation, electricity, education, and healthcare more accessible. As a strong-willed trailblazer, she has also paved the way for other women to follow in her footsteps and to engage in decision-making processes from which they were excluded earlier.

*Rajshri Deshpande (Actor, founder of Nabhangan Foundation):* Rajshri Deshpande is known for her award-winning portrayal of a grieving mother in the Netflix series ‘Trial by Fire’, and her compelling performance in ‘Sacred Games’ and feminist tour-de-force ‘Angry Indian Goddesses’ among many others. Apart from her histrionics on the big and small screen, Rajshri is also known for her commitment to social activism. In 2015, she adopted Pandhari, a drought-prone village in the Marathwada region of Maharashtra, and organized a rainwater harvesting project. Here she also helped initiate health checkups and went on to build toilets and a school for the local community.
She has also founded the Nabhangan Foundation, in response to challenges faced routinely by rural communities. These include a crisis in the agriculture sector, farmer suicides, diminishing natural resources, unemployment, vulnerability to climate change, urban migration, educational divides, poor health markers, and more. Her goal is to catalyse change via environmental conservation and sustainable development in synergy with local communities. Be it renewable energy, women’s empowerment, or education, her multifaceted advocacy across various subjects demonstrates that when used for a larger purpose, a celebrity platform can help raise awareness about problems that don’t usually get requisite media attention.

*Roshni Perween (Nguvu Change Leader from Bihar, Advocate against Child Marriage):* Hailing from Kishanganj, Roshni was married off to a much older man at the age of 13. As a survivor of abuse and acute trauma, Roshni has first-hand experience of the harrowing pain faced by child brides. She shared her ordeal also at the Young Activists Summit, held in 2023 at the Palais des Nations in Geneva which was attended by over 650 participants and joined online by 20,000 from 144 countries. She was also lauded at the event for her vital advocacy against child marriage in Bihar. Working with the Nguvu Collective, Roshni now engages in community outreach and helps provide counselling resources and assistance to vulnerable girls so that they can pursue higher education and exercise agency while making decisions about their future. Her work also targets systematic fault lines that lead to such practices and she mobilizes community leaders, policymakers, and multiple stakeholders to make gender equality and child rights normative in conservative rural communities.

*Bhuri Singad (TRI stakeholder, female entrepreneur, Madhya Pradesh):* Bhuri Singad, hailing from Gunawad Village in Petlawad (Jhabua) Madhya Pradesh, has penned an unlikely success story as an entrepreneur against all odds. Her journey shows that when an underserved rural citizen is given an equal opportunity to thrive and offered scalable and sustainable solutions for progress, transformative change can be achieved. Bhuri was born into a poor family and could not access affordable education, yet her desire to change her circumstances was strong. Helped by the Transform Rural India (TRI) foundation, which believes in designing community-centric strategies to alleviate rural poverty, Bhuri started her own business: a dona pattal unit. With the support of TRI and its Nari Adhikar Kendra program, she was able to nurture her enterprise which today not only provides her with financial independence but also empowers her to educate her children. She is now a role model for women in her community and is inspiring others to break the cycle of poverty, educate the next generation, and steer it towards dignity and self-reliance. Additionally, Bhuri’s growing business is creating employment opportunities within her community and enriching the local economy.

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