More power to the women

Speakers discussed the many hurdles in ensuring equality and called on men to do their bit


Ritu Jha


“Empowerment of Women” was the theme of the third annual 2018 Ideal Village conference recently held at Stanford University. The topics addressed included gender inequality, and the dearth of healthcare, education, safety, a decent livelihood and leadership opportunities.

Those at the event included industry leaders, academicians, investors, and representatives of non-governmental organizations and like-minded groups.

Ambassador V Ashok, India’s consul general in San Francisco, a keynote speaker, pointed out that educating a woman could ensure the education of the family. He said that given that 68 percent of India lives in its 640,000 villages, rural India could be the engine for sustainable economic growth.

“A Smart Village is a community, empowered by digital technologies, and open innovation platforms, to access global markets,” he said.

Ashok defined an ideal village as one technology and other forms of innovation could enable people to get their basic necessities — water, sanitation, healthcare, energy, transportation. He said such villages could also drive the effort with technologies that ensure the availability of these necessities – education, financial inclusion, Internet and Wifi service, mobile bank accounts, sensor technologies for agriculture, new technologies like drip irrigation, and food processing, apiculture, sericulture, silviculture, pisciculture, aquaponics, hydroponics etc.

“Silicon Valley can play a significant role in [driving] IoT [the Internet of Things], AI and machine learning in agriculture and healthcare,” he told indica, “But at the same time this needs to be dovetailed into traditional technologies practiced for centuries in India in the realm of water – check dams, tanks, and other storage systems. and a return to organic agriculture.”

Arvind Thiagarajan, co-founder of HD Medical Group and one of those behind Ideal Village, said, “We want to provide free healthcare, education, energy, water and another empowerment service to the villagers and empower their life.

Thiagarajan, a protege of late President of India APJ Abdul Kalam, told indica, “Villagers need life-saving devices, education, technology, clean water, and energy that can change lives.” Thiagarajan’s SAI Global Mission supports 250 villages and every week provides free health care checkup and free food.

“We have built free hospitals to offer free heart surgeries and offer value-based education to more than 5,000 children and offer nutrition breakfast and this has been going for the past 12 years,” Thiagarajan said. There are three Sai Sanjeevani hospitals – two in Raipur in Chhattisgarh and one in Mumbai – with another coming up in Kolkata.

“We want to take it to the next level with science and technology and from support of Silicon Valley,” said Thiagarajan. “We want to give back not just to India but other countries as well and wish to collaborate with like-minded people. We want to … bring about collaborations with multiple foundations and investors.”

After speaking at a panel on gender equality and leadership, Kate Byrne, chief growth officer at Watermark, told indica what she thought women’s empowerment really meant: “When a woman has a peace and is able to live by her choices and priorities and are respected. It’s because they haven’t used their voice consistently or they haven’t had the opportunity, to use their voice. Women were asked to stay silent.”

Vibha Bakshi, filmmaker and director, also spoke at the panel.

The maker of Daughters of Mother India, based on the infamous rape in Delhi and who is now making Son Rise, said rape is a global problem. She described it as a manifestation of gender bias.

Vibha Bakshi, filmmaker and director talking about her film ‘Daughters of Mother India’ at the 2018 Ideal Village conference.

“It’s very important that men get involved in this whole fight and struggle for equality and safety and justice,” she said.

Bakshi told indica, “We keep focusing on how we raise our daughters but it’s important how we raise our sons, too. I carry that bigger responsibility: I have two boys.” She said that raising sons with a sense of entitlement is a problem.

“People ask, ‘What can I do to change things?’ I say don’t go out changing the world. Just change who is around you. And it’s one big step in the right direction,” Bakshi said.

Another speaker at the event, Shalini Nataraj, vice president of Programs at Ing Foundation, told indica, “ As women get more empowered and speak up and become more visible there will be a backlash… When they get more empowered society doesn’t like it.” She hoped that new technologies help to connect women while adding that she believed that men needed to be their allies in this effort.

Having a feminist agenda is not just about woman taking up leadership positions; it has to be about men also wanting gender equality and not giving it out of charity, she said, adding that while everyone stood to benefit, if women fought alone and men did not change the traditional mindset, there would be no real change.

Ashok Khosla, chairman of Development Alternatives, discussed sustainable livelihoods, saying that it was possible to provide basic needs like water, sanitation, energy, housing and literacy, without damaging nature.

Ashok Khosla, chairman of Development Alternatives Group.

Khosla’s Development Alternatives Group is a social enterprise dedicated to sustainable development by inventing and innovating machines for villages and focusing on providing not only sustainable livelihood opportunities to many marginalized people but also strengthening their institutions and helping them access those basic needs.

Raju Goteti vice president of Co-Innovation Network (COIN) at TCS (Tata Consultancy Services), said 33 percent of the 380,000 TCS employees are women.

Speaking of sustainable livelihoods, Goteti, said he believes that any migration from rural to the urban environment is job-related, and argued that a lack of education, healthcare and other elements important to a society was what drove such migration.

According to Kate Cochran, CEO of Upaya, a social venture fund founded in 2011 that offers accelerator programs and small amounts of funding, her firm helped improve the lives of small farmers.

Kate Cochran,(2nd from left) CEO of Upaya, a social venture fund talking about serving women in the northeast region of India, says women are unwilling to give up, even if success takes a while.

“Women in our portfolio are very impressive, dogged and unwilling to give up, even if success takes a while, Cochran said. They keep at it and I think they are socially minded.”

Another speaker, Karin Lion, director of global agriculture strategy at Digital Green, showed videos of how her firm supports village farmers in Bihar, and in areas of Ethiopia and Nepal, training farmers to make and show short videos highlighting their problems.

Abhishek Sinha, co-founder & CEO of the India-based Eko India Financial Services, and one of the speakers at entrepreneurship told indica that 93 percent of India’s population is informally employed and earn their wages in cash. At Eko, he said, the cash is converted into digital money so that these workers can participate in the digital economy.

“We have millions of women customers and a few thousands women merchant in our ecosystem,” said Sinha, adding that Eko has about 40 million customers in India.

He argued that while sites like Paytm caters to customers and people with a bank account, Eko is for those who earn in cash.

The Ideal Village conference was hosted first in 2016 by Stanford University’s Science for Society, a public-private philanthropic community partnership.

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