“Gender equality is the unfinished business of the 21st century,” Hillary Clinton famously proclaimed in 2013. And nobody knows how to go about this better than women themselves. When perfectly aligned, unique ideas, rigorous training, breaking-edge technology, and strong communication can result in innovative solutions that can affect real change for women at the grassroots level. Here we look at five extraordinary groups and organizations that advance the cause of gender equality and women’s empowerment in the everyday world.
1. The Kung Fu Nuns, Nepal
This may not be the name of a movie, but the story behind it is well worthy of being one! It began in 2008 when the head of the venerated Drukpa order, Gyalwang Drukpa, saw nuns receiving combat training on a visit to Vietnam. Fired by this simple but powerful way to empower women and promote gender equality, he arranged for his nuns to receive martial arts training for self-defense. Today nearly 800 nuns undergo intense daily training with traditional weapons such as swords, sabres, and nunchaku. Along with their training, they build inner strength through focused meditation.
This immense strength was put to magnificent use when a devastating earthquake hit Nepal in 2015. Boldly refusing to move to safer areas, the nuns jumped headlong into rescue operations. They trekked to villages to help clear pathways, remove debris, and carry food, provisions, and medicines. Over the years, these nuns have blossomed into champions of women’s rights, teaching kung fu to women in the surrounding communities in Nepal. They undertake annual Eco- Padyatras (journeys on foot) to pick up trash plastic and to educate local communities along the way. In recent years, they have taken to Bicycle Yatras across Nepal and India to promote green transportation and to protest the rise in human trafficking.
Their incredible story has received widespread coverage and recognition. They were invited to London to demonstrate their kung fu skills as part of the 2012 pre-Olympic celebrations. Later, in 2019, they were honoured with the Asia Game Changer Award in New York City and Atlantic Council’s Unsung Heroes in 2020. Last year, UNESCO International Centre for Martial Arts conferred their Martial Arts Education Prize to the Kung Fu Nuns, and in 2022 they were conferred with the International Women's Day Award by Delhi Commission for Women (DCW).
2. FLONE Initiative, Kenya
This story begins in Kenya, where Naomi Mwaura grew up watching her uncles work in the local transport industry. Kenya’s minibuses – locally known as matatus – are a convenient and affordable way for people to commute. Naomi’s uncles worked as drivers, conductors, and cleaners on these matatus. Even though she recognized that matatus could pose safety risks for women passengers, Naomi tended to think of public transport as a misunderstood and neglected industry. It wasn’t until she herself suffered physical assault at the hands of transport conductors that she understood the plight of women commuters.
The Flone Initiative grew out of a need to make public transport safe for women riders. Naomi quickly realized that employing more women transport operators automatically helped make women commuters safer. The Women in Transport program seeks to attract, retain, and promote women in the transport industry by providing them with the necessary skills and support to create a safe, secure, and financially rewarding working environment. Matatu by matatu, Flone Initiative is transforming the gender-insensitive mobility system in Kenya.
3. Gram Vaani, India
Gram Vaani is a social tech enterprise that wants to give voice to the unheard millions of India. It turns the usual process of information flow on its head by reversing it. Instead of information flowing top-down, Gram Vaani allows it to travel bottom-up. Aimed especially at rural women, it encourages and promotes their digital participation by bypassing the problem of low literacy by making the platform speech and audio enabled. Anyone can access the voice-based channels using the most basic feature phone.
Incubated out of IIT Delhi, Gram Vaani was first deployed in Jharkhand and Bihar and boasts of over 100,000 monthly unique users today. Typically, a user calls in on a given number and records her concern, query or experience in her own voice and language. Issues can range from local updates to exploitative money lenders to government schemes. Basically, it doubles as a social media platform for rural areas and as a repository of information. Following its astounding success in Indian villages, Gram Vaani has been used by over 150 organizations in countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Namibia, and South Africa.
4. #Happy Period, United States
It was the sight of a homeless black woman wearing blood-stained clothes and bleeding freely as she crossed the road that ignited the idea behind Happy Period. It brought home the condition of poor, homeless black women with a vengeance. Chelsea VonChaz changed career paths to set up Happy Period, which now advances the cause of menstrual care for Black people, Latinas, and indigenous women in the United States.
Happy Period has designed specific menstrual health programs to educate students in underserved schools in predominantly Black and Brown neighbourhoods. They regularly distribute free period products among low-income groups and even conduct period care pop-ups in underprivileged communities. In short, Happy Period is dedicated to empowering women and improving the quality of their lives by teaching them how to take better care of themselves.
5. Martha Farrell Foundation, India
Dr. Martha Farrell is a highly respected name in India as a crusader for women’s rights, adult education, and gender mainstreaming in institutions. Unequivocally committed to the cause of gender justice, she was killed in a terrorist attack on a guesthouse in Kabul where she had been leading a gender training workshop. The Martha Farrell Foundation was set up to carry her legacy forward.
It is particularly dedicated to making workplaces and public spaces safe for women by preventing sexual harassment and violence. This is done through sensitising the youth on gender-related issues (Kadam Badhate Chalo), working with employees in the formal and informal sector on the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace, and recognising individuals and institutions that are doing phenomenal work on the issue of women's empowerment and gender equality through the Martha Farrell Award. Over the years, the foundation has trained nearly 280 institutions and 32,800 employees in making the workplace safe for women.