Women’s Empowerment Is Complex In India: Rwitwika Bhattacharya
Since the last nine years, Rwitwika Bhattacharya has been working with members of Parliament to bring about change in the grassroots. Her social enterprise Swaniti — set up in 2009 — today has 35 associates on field helping in program implementation. “These 35 associates are trying to solve the grave problem of how to get resources out of the government machinery in an effective way,” she tells SheThePeople.TV.
Growing up between India and US
She is the daughter of Kolkata’s former Mayor Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharya, and as a result saw political life very closely. Naturally, her environment was dominated by political conversations as her home would be visited by MPs on a regular basis.
But at the age of 10, she moved to Florida in the US and completed her education there. She did her Bachelor’s in Economics and Political Science from Wake Forest University and Master’s in Public Policy from Harvard Kennedy School. This education enriched her learning — giving a global perspective to her political early years.
Inspired by father
Spending time with her father had a major impact on Rwitwika’s choices in life. “Had I not had the opportunity to see what political life looked like from the inside, I would have never really understood the gaps and opportunities in the political space. For example, my focus on constituency exists because when I would meet MPs with my father, they would consistently talk about the need to visit their constituency and meet the electorate.”
She further explains: “It was second nature to me that working at a constituency level through the MPs office could create impact. So much of what we see in the media is only one part of being in political life. I think being able to follow my father around and see how politicians work really gave me an in-depth understanding about how politics and development work.”
Even while she was growing up, she took keen interest in development initiatives and how politics works to enhance people’s lives. “When I was in high school, I had an opportunity to intern with a Senator in her constituency office. I could see as a teenager, how methodically issues were resolved. I would answer a call, note a grievance, forward it to the correct department and within a time-frame, they would revert back with an answer. The system was sound,” she said, adding that it wasn’t the same structure at work in India.
“When I would come back to India and my father would take me to meet MPs, I noticed that while our elected representatives were committed to serve their constituents, they were only fire-fighting because they did not have a system. Most MPs, even today, end up only resolving the problems of individuals, one at a time. Thus, most Indian MPs are fire-fighting.”
The opportunity to live in two diverse worlds shaped her understanding of opportunities and ideas that could better both worlds: India and the US.
Swaniti is not Rwitwika’s first entrepreneurial adventure. During her college days, she started Dreams Come True. It aimed to get college students to mentor at-risk youth in schools. “I loved the experience and some part of me always wanted to get back to entrepreneurship. It was only a matter of time. Soon, I started my own enterprise and founded Swaniti. It gives me the opportunity to understand ground level issues while also working on the “big picture” things.”
What Swaniti Does
Swaniti, also has a for-profit arm, Ank Aha that leverages data and technology for better decision-making. “Both these arms focus on different problems and solutions but the focus remains consistent: to provide support to the government for better delivery of public services.”
Currently at Swaniti, Rwitwika is working on creating systems where one can use data to help communities plan better for livelihood opportunities based on climate change patterns. Using predictive analytics and Artificial Intelligence, she is creating dashboards that a farmer can use to plan what he/she needs to do better in light of changing climate conditions.
While Rwitwika has led the organization, there are also some challenges she constantly faces. “I think while the government has tremendous potential to make impact, it is also a huge machinery and therefore, being patient is important. Projects can take months to kick off and in an age of instant gratification, months seem like eons. However, the more important thing to remember is that when projects do kick off, they make a tremendously huge impact.”
Challenges of women MPs
Talking about women’s empowerment and if her work allows her to work for the cause as well, Rwitwika said, “In the Indian context, women’s empowerment is incredibly complex. There is no one definition of women’s empowerment. In some parts of Northern India where we work, we see on ground that society prohibits women to leave homes without male companions. People objectify them and the concept of women’s empowerment is missing altogether. In other places in the East, we see women leave home but only when she is working and bringing back money to the household.”
There is some light of hope with women’s empowerment being correlated to economic value, she says. “And then when I come back to Delhi, I see successful businesswoman and political leaders facing discrimination within their households because they are women. And I feel perplexed because I find myself wondering about what will make us empowered. There is a lot of hope and progress in women’s rights and equality but the context in India is complicated.”
On whether if women MPs work differently than male MPs, Rwitwika doesn’t sugarcoat things. She says that while it is difficult to point out any marked categorization, it is important to note that women MPs are “different in their approach”.
One of the most exceptional things about India is that unlike the West, we don’t shy away from getting women into leadership. Whether it is Mamata, Mayawati or Jayalalitha, we are very open to seeing our women as leaders. Some part of our nurturing for women is right
“Indian political life creates too many barriers for women to enter. Whether it is the fact that most public spaces continue to remain male-dominated (for example think about how many women attend an election rally) or that the profession is unwilling to consider a work-life balance, making it virtually impossible for women to enter (most politicians end up having to work 16-hour days and not see their family for weeks on end) or that majority of political parties have not made a concerted effort to recruit and groom women leaders. With such high barriers to entry, it is unsurprising that we see so few women MPs and MLAs,” she explains.
Rwitwika feels that more women are now participating in politics. “One of the most exceptional things about India is that unlike the West, we don’t shy away from getting women into leadership. Whether it is Mamata Banerjee, Mayawati or Jayalalitha, we are very open to seeing our women as leaders. Some part of our nurturing for women is right. We need to be mindful of what those are and nudge that more. I think we need to make sure our girls know how much we expect of them and how proud we are to be women.”
With Swaniti, Rwitwika wants to move beyond India and tackle global opportunities in public service delivery. The future is not just about program implementation on ground, but about scaling up what we are doing across South Asia and taking the best practices to the US, she says.