He has made rural women’s development his life’s mission, working tirelessly towards training women in basic behavioural changes that they need to bring in themselves. Akhilesh Tewari ventured into social work in 1989, and less than a decade after that he co-founded the Sarathi Foundation, an NGO dedicated to providing assistance to rural women in various spheres, whether it’s addressing their grassroots problems, or developing vocational skills and credit resources. Through it’s journey, Sarathi has picked up various awards and recognitions, including invitations from The Global Giving and Feedbacklabs in Washington, where they were invited to share some of their strategies and methods of working.  Akhilesh talks to Poorvi Gupta about his journey and his passion for social work.

Social entrepreneurship emerged from observing the dichotomy in society

My journey as a social entrepreneur began in 1989 when I started to work as a mother-child health and nutrition event organizer in remote rural areas of Uttar Pradesh. It sowed the seed of social entrepreneurship with the challenge to balance maintaining social commitments on the one hand and fulfilling family responsibilities on the other hand. Challenges themselves started creating opportunities to travel, explore, discover and open the wings into the roads unknown.

We have IITs, IIMs, universities but more than 57% girls are dropping out at primary school stage itself. We have industries matching global standards but on the other side 90 % still work in unorganized sector across the India. We have super specialty hospitals – mothers, new borns and children especially continue to suffer from even basic health care facilities in villages and slums. We are the largest democracy in the World – women and adolescent girls continue to face brunt of social, economic and cultural prejudices and conditions. These contrasts and unfavorable conditions inspired us to build Sarathi Development Foundation to bring children, adolescent girls and women in center of development and mainstream them with public systems.

Also read: Child trafficking, the big fight: Padma Shri Sunitha Krishnan

Helping women realise their potential: The Sarathi Development Foundation 

Sarathi started its work in 1998 with a trust that children, adolescent girls and women can lead their development if equipped with opportunities, resources, information, knowledge, skills. Our mission aims at supporting and facilitating children, adolescent girls, women and community in such a way that they are able to integrate their potential, wisdom and resources to command development process on their own.

We have developed a strong partnership and collaboration base with International and UN organisations, government, and global networks to reach out and serve the communities. It functions with a team of almost 290 socially conscious professionals including community facilitators, trainers, and researchers, managers both in rural and urban areas. Our funders and partners are UNICEF, Dasra, Water Aid, FHI 360, NABARD, Find Your Feet, Catholic Relief Services, Girls Not Brides, Global Giving, Feedback lab.

Adolescent girls are trapped in a society where government policies and socio-cultural practices fail to accurately categorize them as children or women or address needs relevant to their gender and age

Assisting rural women in ironing out their problems: Akhilesh Tewari and the Sarathi Foundation
Assisting rural women in ironing out their problems: Akhilesh Tewari and the Sarathi Foundation

Empowering rural women

Sarathi focuses on multiple aspects of women empowerment-

  • Building women  self-help groups & federations,
  • Demanding generation and behavioural change through participatory learning and action methodology.
  • Integrated village planning to identify, articulate and address their problems in conjunction with wider community and government.
  • Developing credit resources through collective savings and linkages with banks & government schemes such as national livelihood mission
  • Basic life skills and vocational skills development.

It builds and utilizes a robust platform to engage communities in identifying and addressing their own needs and in taking a leadership role in their own development.

Becoming the agents of change at a grassroots level

We have been able to reach out to more than 3 lakh families including children, adolescent girls and women in rural areas and slums in three states – UP, MP and Haryana. Our most significant changes at grassroots level are- reduction in drop out of children especially girls and drop in pre-mature marriages in villages and slums, increase in access to government primary health care services (Immunization, institutional deliveries), increase and control of women over income. Approximately 9500 community volunteers, 1900 women self-help groups, 1500 adolescent girls groups, 300 school children are trained to lead development processes in our areas.

There are many success stories. In Fatehpur where Sarathi is working for the past five years, one of the women self-help groups that we had trained earlier are taking up the matters of the issue that they are facing on their own without our help. Recently, the district level federation of women self-help groups took a decision to make their village open-defecation free which means 100% toilets and change in hygienic behaviors. So the federation as a whole met the District Magistrate of Fatehpur district and submitted the list of requirements and expectation. The DM agreed with their requirements and she appreciated them a lot. So it makes us feel happy and proud that these collectives that we had trained are now taking on their role own without our support. Now the committee of girls have learnt that if you hit higher, you are going to get bigger.

Adolescent girls and female youths carry multiple strengths such as aspirations, energy, and future perspective to become change-makers of  society

Gender disparity is a major concern in India

Gender disparity manifests itself in crucial aspects of their lives, such as education, participation in decision-making, asset ownership, domestic violence, livelihood skills. Gender disparity  in terms of  wages, early marriages before legal age, school drop outs, low transition from primary to secondary education, malnourishment are clearly visible in slums and rural areas across the country. Adolescent girls are trapped in a society where government policies and socio-cultural practices fail to accurately categorize them as children or women or address needs relevant to their gender and age; leaving them powerless to make essential life choices.

Also read: Woman leading the change: Preethi Herman of Change.org

Young girls have limitless potential

Adolescent girls and female youths carry multiple strengths such as aspirations, energy, and future perspective to become change-makers of the society. Existing mindsets, behaviors, social environment  lack of opportunities restrict their potential to shape their life  for themselves , their families and larger society .They must be given opportunities, platforms, leadership,  life skills, freedom for expression, learning in their own ways, participation and communication on their needs, choices and issues.