In conversation with Rusen Kumar, India CSR; Dr Neelam Gupta, Founder President and CEO, AROH Foundation, and a Global Goodwill Ambassador, shares her vision of women taking centre stage in India’s development process and discusses some of the initiatives taken by her NGO that have brought a positive change in lives of thousands of women across India. Excerpts:
What motivates you to work for women’s empowerment?
I believe human life is meant not to survive, but to thrive. Women are the greatest assets of humanity to live life and to thrive! But women have been pushed behind to an extent that they struggle for their survival. They wilt, because do not find opportunities to blossom to their full potential. If women receive education, skills and right to exercise their choice, and if they’re brought centre stage in our development stories, our society would thrive and prosper. Leaving half the population behind, we can only expect incomplete and lopsided development. Gender parity has been an issue which everyone talks about, but not enough progress has been made till date. Women empowerment is a win-win situation for both the woman and the society. The essence of my work has been to empower women and help them in getting their rightful place in the society.
Tell us about genesis of AROH Foundation?
Seeds of AROH were sown on a cold December morning, when I was on my way to school. I saw a poor little girl on the roadside, wearing a torn shirt and shivering in cold. Moved by her plight, I gave her a woolen sweater I was wearing. Next day, on my way to school, I met the same girl again, sans the sweater I gave her, shivering in cold. When I asked her about the sweater, she said that her father took it away to sell it off. That day I realized the great truth behind the famous saying, “Do not give them the fish, teach them how to fish.” That day I decided to work for the upliftment of the poor and underprivileged people, especially girls and women, to make them self-reliant. I am glad today our PM himself is giving a call for ‘Atmnirbharta’.
However, it has been a long journey since. If entrepreneurship is a difficult life, social entrepreneurship can be more difficult. For a woman in India, it becomes doubly challenging too. I had to be financially sufficient to start a nonprofit venture. I had to pass through a series of phases that had domestic responsibilities, social and family dilemmas and financial planning for almost 15 years, when finally in 2001, with the dawn of new millennium I could lay the foundation of AROH Foundation as a charitable society.
How has been the journey so far? What were the challenges of running an NGO?
It has been about two decades, and I would say the journey has been truly rewarding and fulfilling, but there have also been daunting challenges. It was a huge challenge to work in the remote, unreached villages, particularly Naxalite affected areas. As I took the bold decision to venture into the red corridor villages of Bihar, Jharkhand and Odisha, the field staffs and functionaries received threats of Naxalites. I was also threatened by such negative forces. But we have bravely endured and carried on the work in areas where it was most needed and came out with great impact.
Some of the functional challenges in running an NGO have been dearth of good manpower and resources to work in the remote villages, means of transportation to reach project sites and most importantly seldom and lethargic support from local administration. Regular flow of funds is another major challenge, as it is difficult to sustain the good work when funds dry up. Government funds are often put on hold due to various administrative issues, which can derail as good project.
Unprecedented happening of COVID has thrown unprecedented challenges for grassroots a organization like us. While the resource requirement in these trying times is high, we find a resource crunch, both in terms of finances and manpower. Reaching out to needy and poor has been challenging, though we are trying our best to help as many people as possible. In the post-Covid scenario, we also find doors to new opportunities opening up. To work in the new normal, we are building digital capacity of our staffs, designing women-centric interventions, forging new partnerships with government and corporates, preparing to meet the world with all gears.
The journey has just begun; AROH is pledged towards the betterment of needy and marginal sections and shall project its best towards alleviation of equality, justice, health, security and prosperity within all sections of society from people to livestock and nature to infrastructure.
What are the different initiatives taken up by AROH for women empowerment and what are you aiming through them?
Carrying a vision of “A world where people live in dignity and security and there are equal opportunities for all”, AROH has been working extensively with Government Schemes and CSR initiatives of public sector enterprises and corporates to address the multiple development issues in education, health and sanitation, skill development, water and sustainable environment, climate change and renewable energy. The Foundation has been recognised for its contribution towards all 17 Sustainable Development Goals and awarded by United Nations Global Compact Network India (UNGCNI) for its best practices while ensuring sustainable development at the grassroots..
I believe that effective empowerment for women occurs when women have the autonomy and self-belief to make changes in their own lives, including having the agency and power to organize and influence decision making, while enjoying equal rights to men and freedom from violence. Apart from socio-psychological empowerment, they should enjoy their rights to control and benefit from resources, assets, income and their own time, and when they have the ability to manage risk and improve their economic status and wellbeing. And for this, larger challenge is not only to uplift women, but also to educate the opposite gender about the worth, rights and potential of the women.
Connecting all dots from financial, to social, to psychological empowerment for a holistic empowerment of the women, AROH Foundation has contributed to the upliftment of more than 20,000 women who are today gainfully engaged in job or self-employment or entrepreneurship. Educational status of nearly 25,000 girls and women has been improved through various in-school, out-of-school and community support programmes.
Access to water has empowered and given freedom from drudgery and poor health to more than 1,50,000 women in states like Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Maharasthra, Meghalaya and Uttar Pradesh. Clean energy through biogas, solar lights, solar water pumps, biomass stoves, etc. has given better health and life to more than 1,00,000 women in 100 villages across India.
Various initiatives of the Foundation on health and sanitation, in particular menstrual and maternal health, have resulted in reduced instances of illness, improved security and safety of more than 2,00,000 girls and women. Other empowering and enriching programmes on financial inclusion and social awareness have built confidence and self-esteem of women and improved their negotiating power to make their lives better and more meaningful by reducing gender disparity.
Mainstreaming 2.5 lakhs poor and marginalized women and touching lives of more than 10 lakh women indirectly, through inclusive initiatives and reducing gender discrimination in various walks of life, have been the drivers to change the status of women in society.
What is AROH’s USP?
AROH is an acronym for ‘A Ray of Hope’ and we strive to fulfill the hope and aspirations of people who suffer various kinds of deficiencies in their lives. Our USP has been the 4Ps i.e. Purpose, Passion, Patience and Perseverance, which run in our DNA and I believe that has been the key to our success under most difficult circumstances.
With the overarching stimulus provided by the 4Ps, the Foundation has designed SMART (Sustainable, Measurable, Accountable, Replicable and Time bound) interventions providing people-centric solutions for better education, childcare, healthcare, water management, sanitation, environmental sustainability, agricultural outputs, women’s empowerment and sustainable livelihoods, need-based sustainable opportunities for income enhancement of the poor and underprivileged. AROH has built a deep and well-meshed presence in 18 states, reaching the remotest locations. The pool of resources at such deep levels has a well-built cohesion with communities, government and officials to create better impact. AROH also stands out for extensive use of technology, crisp and transparent method of planning, implementation, monitoring and reporting.
What does next decade holds for AROH? Any specific initiative or partnership that AROH is excited about?
The future of AROH Foundation is no more just what I dream and plan, but it now carries hopes, dreams and aspirations of all the employees and beneficiaries of the Foundation. The need to extend our outreach to more and more underserved and disadvantaged populations, especially women, continue to be the guiding force behind our initiatives.
With our experience, expertise and learning of nearly two decades, AROH today has a robust roadmap and confidence to scale new heights and change the lives of millions of vulnerable and underprivileged people in farthest corners of the nation. I am excited to find great opportunities amongst the challenges brought by COVID. The pandemic has opened new doors for women due to emerging attention on digital and online education, skilling and working from home, which would certainly exacerbate our efforts towards women’s empowerment and reduce gender gaps in different spheres of development.
We are excited to launch ‘Mission Period Freedom’ to help lakhs of women who cannot afford safe period products, to gain access to free or subsidized products. With the Prime Minister’s call to serve a taboo like ‘Period’, the subject would come out of the closet and I feel our reach and penetration would be easier, and women would certainly break the shackles of pain and misery and obtain period freedom.
Going forward, would like to forge closer ties with the Government to diversify and reach out the benefits of development and welfare schemes to the last mile. We have joined hands with the ambitious Government schemes, such as Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, Jal Shakti Abhiyaan, Aatmnirbhar Bharat and Ayush Bharat, to serve poor and underserved communities.
I am proud to see AROH emerge and evolve as a dynamic force, contributing towards nation’s development and progress, through its pioneering initiatives and efforts.