Rural women emerging as leaders during adversities, says Prema Gopalan

Crisis presents an unique opportunity for building women’s leadership and community resilience.
Dola Samanta
Sep 14
Over the past 20 years, SSP has built robust partnership ecosystems that support women-led entrepreneurship and leadership in sustainable development.

While the news and footage of the migrants walking back to their villages made a lot of us feel uncomfortable and helpless, we could not do much to change the situation. 

But, here is an incredible story of Anjana from Latur district in Maharashtra , a rural farmer and an organiser  who came forward to welcome migrants and changed the status quo in many ways. 

In this interview, Ms Prema Gopalan, the founder of Swayam Shikshan Prayog, tells us about how she has witnessed rural women in the SSP networks in Maharashtra, Kerala and Bihar taking up new public roles after massive disasters in the past two decades and now during COVID-19 and continue to embody core principles of inclusion and community building.

“Rural women have been organised in self-help groups for decades, we need to invest in women’s leadership, so communities are resilient”, says Prema Gopalan

Swayam Shikshan Prayog empowers grassroots women in low-income, climate threatened communities to attain self-reliance and self-sufficiency. Over the past 20 years, SSP has built robust partnership eco-systems that support women-led entrepreneurship and leadership in sustainable development. In the last decade, SSP teams have empowered over 200,000 women farmers and entrepreneurs by building robust ecosystems – of federations and social enterprises SSK –Sakhi Samaudaya Kosh for social finance, SURE for rural marketing and distribution and seen for skills and entrepreneurship. Women in drought-hit regions have embraced community leadership to fight climate change by ensuring food secure farming, increased access to health services, water and sanitation, increasing incomes, creating jobs, boosting local economies, and advocating with the government.

Going forward for the next five years, the vision is to have women in different leadership roles.

Citing the examples of Anjana and Shaila tai Prema says, post COVID-19 the women leaders formed an inclusive approach to integrate migrants in rebuilding economies after COVID-19. In village after village, community leaders have mapped clusters of migrants and guided,  counselled women –advocated with Panchayats to find them jobs, job cards, with PDS systems to get rations cards and free rations. Anjana with her cadre of village leaders have surveyed and listed over 2500 incoming migrant families across  34 villages and made a blueprint for skills and job creation. Anjana has established a very neat urban-rural connection between the returning migrant women who she says are “market savvy with city skills”. 

Anjana then shared these stories on a zoom call with the rest of the villages and then they are inspired to do the same. I think we need to bridge the digital divide –share examples of how women are empowering women now and how keep themselves up to date with innovations and knowledge with the agriculture sector or enterprise.

I think going forward we all know that livelihood is the key, we really need to go beyond that for these women. They need to firmly be part of the decision making related to water security and planning for basic health and nutrition services –an urgent need post COVID-19 in rural areas. They cannot be neglected from community decision making as that does not work then in their favour. Focus on women’s incomes alone is not enough. Prema adds.

Prema has been working to empower rural women for over twenty years, when asked about her vision for the coming years, she says: 

Going forward for the next five years, the vision is to have women in different leadership roles. Be it rural or urban poverty and hunger is going to increase a lot, plus we have a combined crisis, climate crisis, economic crisis or health. All this is going to affect the rural women the most. They will be the worst hit yet we feel that if we don’t look at rural women as victims but as solution providers and as being able to multitask and solve problems and have leadership skills that can help in complex problem-solving at the local level. We need women in leadership, in rural areas women are missing from decision-making platforms, either related to the local economic development of governance. So, the vision is to see them lead the local economy and local governance. 

How did she fight the gender disparity and challenges and biases in the community over the years and what are some of the learnings from that?

The biggest learning is that women need to develop their alternate support role, which can be the Self Help Groups or their network that we create from Swayam Shikshan Prayog. This is a solidarity network which helps them in their journey of empowerment. We are trying to transform very deep rooted biases and for that the women themselves need to not just empower themselves but become influencers and not leave anyone behind. 

They need to enable and take along their families through the change process. So, each woman needs to envision what change is like and she needs to enable the others around her, the men, the entire community and the gram panchayat. 

How have the men perceived this change? 

We see a lot of change in men. The women are in groups and there is a collective pressure on men to change. And that is not something automatic that has happened. I think in today’s world, the information and conquering of a digital device and support of networks is most important. And we find that the leaders are always learning and looking out for new opportunities and they have this mindset that whatever the problem is we can conquer it. 

After Covid-19 we reached out to 500- 600 villages in Orissa, Bihar, Kerala etc and we found that these women were very active in giving these ration kits, trying to find jobs for those who landed there, the migrants. And also accepting them having no negative feelings, and then helping the gram panchayats in quarantine and all those kinds of things. There were immediate needs to be met. And this kind of leadership also impresses men a lot. Whenever there is crisis or adversities these are the best times for women to come out and show leadership and establish an identity and this has a spillover effect on their families. 

Not just income earning, unless they are decision-makers either on the farm, which has been SSP’s entire strategy, about 80,000 women who are small and marginal farmers who are agriculture decision-makers. They are able to decide what crops to grow, inputs crops over cash crops, and what to grow and how much to keep at home and how much to sell and where to sell because women are not allowed to go to market but now they are. So, once there is income and control of incomes in their hands, however, it impacts their role in decision making in the family very directly. 

For decades we have focused on getting women to be income earners, economically empowered, but I think there is very little focus on financial health.

There they take up community leadership, generate water, regenerate water, or help with health, water and sanitation services after COVID-19 or if they are empowered through livelihoods, many of them have become job creators, so they are giving jobs to others and they are giving jobs to their family people of course. They are also employing their own men. 

One of our women told us that my son has been sending money from the city and I told him that I will invest it wisely to improve the water resources for our farm and irrigation, so you never need to go back to the city. Really far thinking, not only investing in water but also in animals, paultry, thinking almost intergenerationally. Forget about our vision for rural women, they have a vision of their own. And we need to support them, if they have a solidarity network, they have a vision and they know what to do next then they are really on a path. 

Prema emphasises on the need for financial management and financial literacy along with income generation and empowerment for women.

I think financial literacy alone is not enough, of course, bank-related decisions etc. but I think financial planning is what is missing. For decades we have focused on getting women to be income earners, economically empowered, but I think there is very little focus on financial health. You know the COVID-19 crisis has shown, only the women who have saved could have helped others, who are financially secured. 

There is too much emphasis on taking loans, building the enterprise but there is very little focus on women’s financial security and financial health. These families have they invested right, do they have a plan for emergencies, do they have a plan for short term investments, do they have a long term plan and even for pension etc. If there is a plan for women their savings is the first to be withdrawn during an emergency, that goes to meet the emergency. 

The main thing that stands out is that we are facing multiple crises, which requires complex problem solving and the answer to that is we need trusted leadership. And we need leadership, who can think out of the box and be bold. And also, while there is a lot of charity by individuals and we often discount the good which is done at the grassroots by people who have little. Here they have shown that less is more because of their mind set. They think that they are called for duty. 

In our case we raised online funds for food relief, within a month you know the figures showed that women had reached 8000 families and we had reached only 5000.

Prema concludes the interview by sharing her views on how we can build and empower leaders and communities.

Going forward we will be causing a lot of harm if we do not include women in recovery and resilience space. Our experience showed after every crisis that if we don’t give ownership to the community then it doesn’t work. For any livelihood activity to sustain, you need communities to take up that ownership. Though these kinds of investments are seen as short term, it is long term investment in people, not just technology that pays off. While we think of supply chains, we need to think about how local markets can be built. There are new opportunities in the agriculture and health sector, in which we can have women-led micro-enterprises, where women are job creators for migrants. And be part of value chains where they are in sales and distribution and not just in production. They are part of the value addition. There are new opportunities and they need new ways of working and navigating.  

Swayam Shikshan Prayog is a Rang De impact partner. You can now invest in women entrepreneurs supported by SSP by visiting

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