Communities Empowering Communities
A theme that emerged very strongly for me during my visit to Kolkata and when meeting the NGOs that work there was empowerment. I love the word empowerment and I love what it means. To empower or to become empowered, as I see it, is to give or gain power when you felt that you had none. So this could be politically, economically, socially and on a personal level. Power in this sense is not a power over others, but a power to act.
Empowerment is vital if we want to create a truly sustainable and lasting social change. This is something that I first learned through Barry and his companies LEAP and The Feed. At LEAP and The Feed, which initially focused on homelessness, they “empower people to live a fulfilling life of their choice”. There is a reason why people become vulnerable or homeless and in order to tackle their situation you need to empower them to believe that a different life can be lived.
When I was planning my fundraising for Women’s Interlink Foundation in Kolkata and thinking about the issues of trafficking and human rights abuse, I did some reading and research into the subject. Like many people, I absolutely loved Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn which talks about the position of women around the world. The book concludes with speaking about the importance of economic empowerment and how education is the path to freedom. I was convinced by their argument and it inspired me even more to raise the funds. But I still didn’t truly understand what that meant.
Being in Kolkata and meeting the organisations that work there (Women’s Interlink Foundation, Sanlaap, Made by Survivors, The Village Experience) it started to dawn on me: empowerment is real and it is powerful. Over the week this concept kept evolving in different ways. WIF (Women’s Interlink Foundation) have several projects tackling the huge problem of trafficking in Kolkata. Being close to the Bangladeshi border, there is a huge influx of trafficked women from Bangladesh. Both WIF and Sanlaap run shelters where they rehabilitate and educate women and girls rescued from trafficking. Together with Made by Survivors the girls learn skills in a variety of trades that will give them employment. They grind spices, do block printing and sew different products that are sold by Topshop. This means that they get their own money delivered to their very first bank accounts. They learn functional literacy so that they can write receipts and calculate prices. In this way they become financially independent for the first time in their lives, which ensures that they will not end up re-trafficked. If it is safe, the girl is then returned to her village where she can teach other girls her skills and run a small business. That is empowerment.
The other project to which we donated money was the Nabadisha Project for street and slum children. The project runs shelters situated at Kolkata Police stations where children get support and education. Many children who live on the streets or in slums find it difficult to stay in education. Their parents are often illiterate and can’t help them with their homework (if there even is a space to do homework). Because the monthly salary of the family is around £50 it is not enough to feed everyone and so the children are often encouraged to work instead of study. What these shelters provide is an alternative. They give children a snack, help them with homework, teach them new subjects and they even do yoga. Having an education gives these children an opportunity to change the cycle of poverty, and it certainly empowers them. This is the true prevention to trafficking.
What struck me when visiting the shelters and Kolkata was the fact that I felt empowered too. From feeling like this is all too much and “what can I do?” – I ended up feeling more powerful than I ever have. All of us who contributed to Yoga Medicine’s campaign raised enough money to run the 15 shelters of Nabadisha Project for a whole year. That is 525 children who will benefit from another year of education, whose lives have the opportunity to change; who may one day be off the street and living in a house or flat. That is phenomenal. This is what our community has done here in Norwich and across the globe, and that is truly empowering. By giving to others we give to ourselves. And for once there is no “not enough” because anything we do is good work.