History has invariably been 'his' story, and the development sector too has suffered from this selective record and recall. To correct that record at least a little, we now have She Is: Stories of women advancing the sustainable development goals in India, a powerful effort to share the 'her'-stories of sheroes advancing the SDGs in India. By show-casing the stories and journeys of 33 women leaders, their career paths and their organisations, this book fills a much needed space in gender-imbalanced India overflowing with manels to celebrate and learn from.
Amidst the evident lack of women's presence in places of power, this book shares the struggles and persistent efforts of influential women to get there. Judge, IPS officer, banker, wildlife photographer, fashion environmentalist, documentary filmmaker, and the many founders, social entrepreneurs, eco-preneurs, scientists, architects, conservationists, members of boards of directors of powerful companies and industries who have empowered themselves and many other women with them in the course of their empowerment. She Is evocatively showcases in first-person narratives, as mentioned in the book blurb, "the journeys of women leaders in their respective fields and also in their realization of the 17 SDGs through their work."
While the stories themselves are inspirational, my favourite features of the book are the little extras - cherries on top: the one word descriptions of the sheroes under their portraits; the SDGs addressed by their work that shows the inter-sectional nature of their efforts and their impact; and finally, like a great policy document's executive summary, saving the best for last is this book's Back Matter that makes it easy for a reader inspired to take action with "Strategies to advance gender equality" and "Strategies to advance a sustainable lifestyle" from the women leaders showcased in the book as well as the "List of nonprofits to support" led, founded and supported by these wonderful women.
Inspirations and lessons
ElsaMarie D'Silva who compiled the book, is herself a dynamo. The founder of Red Dot Foundation (India), she put the lock-down to good use by reaching out to her network of women change-makers, asking them to share their stories and that of their organisations working to ensure sustainable development across India. The diversity of the work she has gathered together is vast, and naturally therefore one finds a large range of inspirations and lessons within the essays. And while the stories are of women leaders, their essays go well beyond the "inequality framework", as Richa Pant, head, CSR & Sustainability, L&T Finance puts it - and have much wider roots and goals.
As a result, their messages have applicability beyond the spaces and organisations in which they work. Through self-empowerment and solving the problems that shaped them and affected the communities they lived in, these women have emerged to become powerful change-makers and game-changers.
Kamla Devi, the first woman solar engineer from Barefoot College credits the influence of the institution on her community through her, demonstrating that uplifting women can in turn uplift communities and nations: "My organization does not discriminate, and I have always been treated as a peer. I have taken these values back to my orthodox community and helped them evolve in being more tolerant, inclusive and accepting." Judge Swati Chauhan's testifies that her life enshrines the message that "a family that empowers daughters empowers the community and the nation."
Several authors reflect on how they've been shaped by their childhood experiences. Revathy Ashok's life came full circle from learning to ride her father's cycle and experiencing "the freedom that came with mobility" to "actively advocating for sustainable mobility as we push the government for green recovery via cycling districts and non-motorized transport." Smita Mankad shares how her childhood, which included travel and change, made her adaptable with flexible skills that came in handy. When she points out that "In some companies, I am still the only woman in the room. Getting a seat at the table in the Boardroom is a big step but only the first part of the challenge for women", she says, hinting at a tenacity that doubtless was part of her journey, and pointing to the wide gender gaps in all corridors of power.
A number of the narratives are not only about the women, but also about the communities and organisations that shaped them and their quest to fulfil the SDGs. Dr Rashneh N. Pardiwala's journey with Centre for Environmental Research and Education demonstrates "the power of science, public awareness and local participatory approach to combat environmental challenges." Shilpi Singh writes about her experiences running a home-stay that brought people together in her experiential travel venture, The Unhotel Company. Her reminders that "a plan without a goal is just as meaningless as a goal without a plan", and that "execution is key" are good advice of the sort that we routinely take from leaders who are men.
Pioneering architect and master planner Pratima Joshi's urges us never look at anything as failure and to believe that every challenge is an opportunity that will lead to an interesting solution. Her confidence that "an inclusive, empathetic process brings about successful results" speaks to the heart of democracy and society. These are values that are becoming increasingly important today, especially in our cities where so many of us are clustering.
Mansi Sahu affirms the transformational power of well-designed and humane cities. Her travels through childhood showed her how "spaces, art and science had played a crucial role in shaping the cities". This shaped her architectural journey, which revealed to her how despite differing nationalities "the struggles of young women were similar" in different places. Cities, she points out, are "experienced differently by men, women, children and people with special needs. Yet, historically speaking, it is mostly men who have taken all major planning decisions."
Social entrepreneur Puja Mitra notes that one's own growth is deeply tied to the work of development. "Personal growth and accepting your flaws and strengths equally is success to me. It is also important to remember that there are many who are facing unimaginable discrimination, poverty, ill health and lack of opportunity which holds them back from realizing their full potential."
Not everything in the book is about helping women access things that men already have, or helping rural people get something that is only available in cities. In some cases, these leaders created new things that did not exist for anyone. Chetna Gala Sinha, who established the women's rural banking institutions, Mann Deshi Mahila Sahakari Bank, introduced rural doorstep banking before it caught on in urban India. Addressing the needs of women and listening to them, she says, made the bank "resilient, realistic and responsive," - something not common in the banking sector! In the process, the bank instilled and leveraged a tendency among women to save and generate wealth even when they are poor!
There is much more within the book's pages, offering both depth and breadth. Dr Sohini Chakraborty of Kolkata Sanved, Dr Neelam Gupta of A Ray of Hope Foundation, Padma Shree Reema Nanavaty of the Self-Employed Women's Association, and others offer anecdotes from their work, which often have meaning and value beyond that too. As Aafreen Siddiqui of the Regional Innovation Centre of UNDP Asia Pacific puts it, "Look around you - every woman is fighting her own battle and will have something to inspire you and boost your confidence".
As a collection of women-led and women-supporting organisations this is a significant list that can effect change, especially given the fact that less than two per cent of international development finance goes to women-led initiatives even though they are highly effective even while bootstrapping. India continues to be plagued by femicide, female foeticide and infanticide that adversely skews the sex ratio, a situation that in 2019 triggered a red alert in Uttarkashi similar to the kind of alerts we raise for natural disasters. Against that backdrop, She Is reminds us that the lens of gender equality weaves a wonderful thread through the other SDGs, and must therefore be embedded deeply in our quest for development.
She Is: Stories of Women Advancing the Sustainable Development Goals in India, has been compiled by ElsaMarie D'Silva, with illustrations by Supreet K. Singh. Notion Press, November 2021, 302 pp.