4 September 2017

Recognition, Solidarity, Hope: Helping marginalised women participate more fully in society

Two years ago, I sat with some young women in a programme the Aga Khan Foundation runs in Uttar Pradesh. They held hands or leaned on each other. Some had never been to school; others were withdrawn by their parents. A few were already married. They had struggled to get permission to join, but their parents were convinced by the vocational training offered alongside reading, counting, and ‘life skills’ – self-esteem, confidence, financial literacy and adolescent health.

The girls said the most important thing was coming together and supporting each other. One girl’s reply stays with me: “Sir,” she said emotionally, “before, my father never had time for me. He didn’t look at me and was not interested in anything I did. But now he knows I can contribute money and he is proud.” Her comment points to the tremendous distance so many Indian women must travel for basic recognition, social acknowledgement and dignity; it points to the daily struggles they face and the courage they need to assert themselves.

In India, significant accomplishments have been made calling attention to women’s challenges, celebrating their achievements, and committing to their empowerment. More women are local representatives than ever before, with over 1.2 million elected. In a decade, basic female literacy increased from 54 to 65%. Between 2007 and 2013, girls comprised 56% of new students. All encouraging signs.

But the ongoing challenges for women in India are stark: One-third are malnourished. Half are anaemic. About 50% of adult women still cannot read and write – double the number of men. Life is hard: most women spend at least six hours a day fetching water or firewood, cooking and farming. About 40% percent of married women have been the victim of domestic violence.

Too many women in India lack the fundamental dignity and self-determination that modern societies seek for their citizens. Yet the arc of history is bending in India. The world’s largest democracy will be truly exemplary when its women are full participants in its society and politics. There are a number of very concrete things we can do to advance this path, improving the quality of life and laying the foundation for social inclusion, greater liberty and fundamental dignity.

AKF’s lessons are drawn from almost 40 years of experience in India, and over a century of presence by other Aga Khan institutions here. Our commitment to women’s empowerment runs deep: girls’ education was one of the first priorities of the Aga Khan School when it was established in 1905.

Across India, thousands of civil society organisations like ours work every day with women and their communities to improve their quality of life – to give them more time, more knowledge, more opportunity, more sources of support.

Here are three basic things civil society, government and business can do together to enhance the practical conditions for women’s empowerment in India:


Nothing improves women’s status and horizons faster than education. Better educated women tend to be healthier, more employed, have fewer children and care better for those that they do have. This can vastly improve individual well-being and lift households out of poverty. According to the World Bank, just one year of secondary education can increase a girl’s total wage income by 25% over a lifetime.

The more we can do to improve girls’ participation and retention, the better. In a decade, AKF and its partners in India helped 1.2 million children learn to read and improved learning levels in 3300 government schools. In the next five years, we plan to double that, educating 1.5 million new readers in 750 preschools and 4,000 schools. Half these students will be girls.


Fetching water is commonly cited by women as their single greatest burden. Only a third of homes treat their water, much of it also unfit, causing illness, malnutrition and lost work. Lack of sanitation facilities is also cited as a reason for insecurity, school absenteeism and chronic abdominal pain. Most women cannot go to the toilet when they must, waiting for hours for a safe time and place.

The government’s Swachh Bharat initiative has created important momentum. We can all play a part in realising it. For decades, AKF and partners have helped women access clean drinking water and sanitation. More than 80,000 households now access potable water. In 2015 alone, we helped families construct over 10,000 toilets. Over the next four years, Aga Khan agencies will help improve hygiene and sanitation in six states to ensure access to safe toilets for at least 700,000 people, half of whom will be women.


The more women come together, the more they can save, the more assets they gain, the more economic benefits they bring, the more voice and respect they have in family affairs. India’s self-help movement has been a tremendous success, with even greater potential. By going beyond credit to include savings, mobile wallets and entitlement access, programmes by corporates and civil society can build on the government’s SHG investment and maximise the benefits for women.

Since 2000, AKF has worked with some 7,000 groups, helping 100,000 women and their families improve their finances. By adding a savings dimension to the government’s programme, an AKF pilot has helped women quintuple their annual savings and address critical household needs. Another promising approach trains some group members in rudimentary goat care, an important asset for the extremely poor or landless. These pashu sakhis have significantly decreased goat mortality, while doubling their own family income by offering the service to others. Innovative additions like these can help the government’s SHG platform work even better for women across the country.

Above all, helping women form bonds of solidarity and support is vital to help them resist traditions and conventions that impede full empowerment and equity. Some question the self-help approach, suggesting women should be more self-sufficient and independent. But too often, women in India face overwhelming pressure to conform and obey. It may sound paradoxical, but more individualism is not the way to create more social autonomy for marginalised women; much more social solidarity is needed for that. If we want more women to have more control over their lives, we must help them rely more on each other, not less. We must help them develop the support-networks to strengthen their resolve, connect them to information and entitlements and improve their outcomes.

A mother and teacher at a preschool AKF works with in Patna put it best. “Before I started working here, I only left my house to find water and do the shopping,” Fatima said. “I was never able to talk to my neighbours or anyone else. Now, I go to other houses and discuss their children: why they are not coming, or why they are not clean or why they are hungry. I used to think that my life was miserable and that I was alone. Now I know that other women here have problems like mine, and I am not alone.”

It is that feeling – what the Aga Khan calls “the spark of hope” – that our organisation and so many others are working to ignite in millions of women, in thousands of communities, in every state. Join us in our commitment to women like Fatima: recent progress is real, but they can attain so much more together with dignity and hope.


This article is an adaptation of a op-ed that was published by the Huffington Post on 8th March 2016. View it here.


Matt Reed

Chief Executive Officer, Aga Khan Foundation UK