Of the world’s 1.2 billion extremely poor people, 75% live in rural areas and are mostly dependent on agriculture, forestry, fisheries and related activities for their survival, says a report by FAO.
With “Shakti for Women” as their mission, this NGO in Gujarat is focused on solutions to increase the economic, social and spiritual strength of women. It als0 involves the development of confidence in their own capacities.
In a heart-warming conversation with Life Beyond Numbers, crime reporter turned changemaker, Sonal Rochani (35) says, “You cannot sit in an AC room, travel in cars and hope to work for rural people. You need to meet with them in person and develop trust to understand their problems.”
A resident of Junagarh town in Gujarat, Sonal hails from an orthodox Sindhi family. A Ph.D. in English, she worked in mass media for 8 years before turning into a social entrepreneur.
In August 2011, she founded Shakti Foundation that works for the underprivileged section of the society particularly for tribal women and their children who have no means of livelihood and move from one place to another like nomads.
With Shakti Foundation, she is also the first ever Indian NGO founder who has gone for Guinness Book of World Record. She has successfully attempted the Tallest Pyramid Cake Record with 3750 kgs and 7ft in height.
From Crime Reporter to Social Entrepreneur
For the last 7 years, Sonal has been working to restore the condition of these tribal women and their precarious conditions because till now most of them live the life of nomads.
In 2005, while working as a crime reporter, she came across a Muslim woman who was soaked in kerosene because her in-laws tried to kill her when they found out she was pregnant with a baby girl, which gave her an insight of the precarious condition of women in Surat.
Another incident, which triggered her to skip crime reporting and work with the underprivileged section of the society was when she was translating official documents from the Central government, she realized that there was too much corruption involved there and the fund dedicated to the tribal community was misused somehow and was not reaching the tribes.
“I realized that I was not meant for the desk job and worked as a crime reporter instead and also found that there was too much corruption in the system and I needed to do something about it personally for the rural development, particularly for tribal women and children,” says Sonal.
Vulnerable Primitive Tribes of Gujarat
The Tribal population in Gujarat is mainly concentrated in the eight districts along the eastern border of the state. 96% live in The Dangs, Valsad, Surat, Bharuch, Vadodara, Panchmahals, Sabarkantha and Banaskantha.
These vulnerable tribal communities of Gujarat hardly get the fruits of benefits from the funds allocated to them by the Government. Therefore, illiteracy, unemployment, malnutrition, alcoholism, early marriages, and gender discrimination are something they are quite familiar with and used to.
Speaking of Harpati and Kotwalia tribes of Tapi and Surat districts of the state, the condition is no different. While for Kotwalia tribe, bamboo work is their traditional occupation, the males from Harpati tribe indulge in alcoholism which reduces their lifespan to 35-45 years and therefore it makes it difficult for women of this tribe to raise children all by themselves without any means of livelihood.
“Due to increasing urbanization, the forests are being cut down. The bamboo trees are becoming scantier making it difficult for Kotwalia tribe to survive,” says Sonal. Throughout the year, people in these communities travel from one place to another like nomads and therefore, the children suffer the most.
Why women of Harpati tribe are forward thinkers? There is one good thing about the woman of Harpati tribe. They are aware of their situation and know how to find a way out of this, says Sonal. “If the husband dies, within a few days, the woman finds herself a man and stays with him with or without marriage. This is so because marriage provides some sort of social security for them and their children. This is a tradition they have been following for years.”
How Shakti Foundation is empowering tribal families
Most people in India’s rural areas do not even earn 100 rupees a day. Therefore, forget about medical expenses, even getting 3 meals a day is quite tough for them. Further, this makes it difficult for women whose husbands do not earn and therefore they are raising their children with extreme difficulty.
When we started working for the welfare of Harpati tribes, we saw that the fate of these kids are hanging by a thread because the community is constantly shifting from one place to another in search of livelihood, says Rochani. Now, there are 44 ashram schools for these kids where proper education is provided, which is securing their future in the best possible manner.
Apart from educating the children of the tribal communities, she has introduced numerous programs that educate this section about hygiene, nutrition, skill development, and ways to earn a livelihood.
To provide these tribal women a sustainable means of livelihood, the foundation is focussing on their two flagship projects:
1. Sanitary Napkins
To support a self-help group to start their own unit of sanitary napkins manufacturing through which they can earn a sustainable livelihood so that the tribal girls and women have access to low-cost good quality pads.
Recently, these women sent 10k pads to flood-hit Kerala and they are quite actively working for the pads donation campaign as well.
2. Guddi – a comic series
Guddi comic is their second project that sensitizes people about how women can protect themselves in difficult circumstances.
Sonal says, “This comic book has a 12-year-old protagonist named Guddi, who along with her gang of girls fights the evils of the society. Like, it explains good touch-bad touch, how minor and adolescent girls can defend themselves from rapes and molestation etc and remain safe.”
It is not easy to gain their trust because they have seen so many challenges and their struggle for survival is phenomenal. “I sit with these women, talk to them, have food with them and that is how I get to know them and their problems. From outside the problems we read about are very subtle, almost like the tip of the iceberg. One has no clue what they are dealing with on an everyday basis,” says Sonal.
To Help Shakti Foundation
Instead of discriminating against people belonging to tribal communities and refusing to help them, let us consider them as a part of EARTH FAMILY and extend support to them.