Episode 8

India’s Female Revolution.

Interviewer: Travel creates stories, unforgettable stories that can make us smile, laugh or even cry. I'm David [Coldron], and you're listening to Out of Office, powered by Contiki. It's the final episode of the season and in this special Real Talk episode, we're talking about India's female Revolution. India has one of the fastest growing economies on the planet but despite this, it's still one of the most difficult places in the world to be a woman, with lack of gender equality and female education being some of the biggest challenges women face. Today, we're talking female empowerment. How women are fighting gender stereotypes in India, a country dominated by men and patriarchy. Contiki sent Canadian travel blogger, Nadine Sykora on a mission to India to find and meet some incredible women who are spearheading movements for change. Hi Nadine, how are you?

Respondent 1: I'm doing good, thank you for having me.

Interviewer: Awesome.  So I know you're a big fan of solo travel, and solo travellers can be empowering to women. Tell us a little bit more about that, why do you love solo travel so much?

Respondent 1: I love solo travel because it's exactly what you said, it's empowering. There is nobody else but yourself to rely on and it's a type of travel that really just teaches you so many life skills on how to defend, how to survive, how to thrive by yourself. And not only that, it’s that you get to do anything that you want to do. Where in life do you get to choose everything? Where you want to eat, or what you want to do, what you want to see, it's just so ... it  is, it's an empowering type of travel and it's very, very exciting.

Interviewer: Do you think there's any other special effects but solo travel has specifically for women?

Respondent 1: I think it teaches women specifically that they can rely on themselves a lot more than they think they can. I think they would get told a lot in life that we can't do things. Especially as women, we told we can't do that, you can't do that, you can't go solo travel there, blah, blah, blah, and it kind of proves them wrong. It proves all the naysayers wrong. That you can actually do a lot of things when you set your mind to it and that kind of ... it's just such a big growth and learning experience, that's why I love it so much.

Interviewer: Now, you went on a trip with Contiki to India. What was the mission? What did you want to achieve when you're in India?

Respondent 1: So the mission I wanted to achieve was to see first-hand India's female Revolution. So it was to learn about the struggles and the challenges that women are facing in India. Then to see what kind of efforts are being made to change that, and to see how they're progressing.

Interviewer: That's awesome, so when you were in India, what surprised you the most when you were witnessing all this first-hand?

Respondent 1: I think the thing that surprised me the most was just seeing how much the women are the ones spearheading the change. The women are the ones that are out there, they're the superheroes and I expected men to be a bit more involved, but it really does take women to create the movement and create that snowball effect.

Also it's women leading women into this.

Respondent 1: Exactly, it's women leading women, women inspiring other women, women empowering other women.

Interviewer: That's awesome though. So when you were ... I've never been to India, and I've always wanted to go, what were your first impressions of the country itself?

Respondent 1: Oh my gosh. It was so much, it was like a rainbow of senses. There's just so many sights and smells and flavours and tastes, it's just everything you could possibly imagine, it's just so vivid and bright and colourful and there's so much out there to see and do, that's really exciting.

Interviewer: When you were in India you met several amazing women that are doing some amazing initiatives aiming at empowering other women, can you tell me about one of those initiatives?

Respondent 1: Mm-hmm, So one of the coolest initiatives I saw was the Pink City Rickshaw Company. So I was in Jaipur which is the largest city in Rajasthan in northern India.

Interviewer: OK, and we actually have online the director, Radhika Kumari, hello Radhika.

Respondent 2: Hi.

Interviewer: How are you today?

Respondent 2: I'm very well.

Interviewer: Awesome. Can you tell me a little bit about Pink City Rickshaw?

Respondent 2: Yes, so the Pink City Rickshaw Company is an initiative to provide livelihoods to the women who belong to the slums around Jaipur. Most of these women are from really low economic households, they all four generally below the poverty line. A lot of them are educated up to [eight] standard, so say the age of 12. But because Jaipur is a very traditional and very conservative place, women have not traditionally been encouraged to go out of the house and work. So India also has a very low ... the women are working in the labour force only 27 percent because traditionally they're encouraged to just work at home, not go out of the house, a lot of it is unpaid labour. And this is an initiative to provide an opportunity for them to earn a better likelihood. So here we trained these ladies how to drive a rickshaw, the rickshaws are electrically charged, they've been modified to look like a buggy and we've designed tours. Jaipur is also a very beautiful place with heritage properties, you've got lovely palaces, you've got beautiful museums. And so we've got tours which are around these places, so we have a heritage tour a lot of people come here to shop, so we have a shopping tour. These are all guided tours, we have an app for that. We not only train them to drive these rickshaws and take people on tools, but we also provide them with skills to empower themselves. Finally, we encourage them to buy shares into the company. So the company is going to be owned by the ladies, we've already got some of them on board.

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Interviewer: That's awesome though, so essentially as the company grows and you educate more women into helping it, they benefit even more from it?

Respondent 2: Yes, it's a social enterprise. So I as the company grows they not only benefit from the company going, but they also learn how to manage and control the company. So it just is not just a project, but we wanted it to be self-sustainable.

Interviewer: That's awesome, because you're making them very savvy practically, but then you're also giving them this business education. So how did this idea come about for the Pink City Rickshaw Company?

Respondent 2: The main idea was that I realised a lot of people from rural areas are now shifting to urban areas. But the cost of living is extremely high. So you know the urban poverty is increasing at an alarming stage. To meet the challenges, both of the men as well as the ladies, both have to work, but we realised that to get the women to work, we not only have to work with them, but we also have to work with their families, try and change the stereotype. For example, when we started the project here there were no women who were driving in rituals. But the cities are full of rickshaws, full of tuk-tuks, full of taxis driven only by men. We had so many tourists coming and we felt it is a ladies who were not getting the opportunity. It was a pilot ... this is the pilot, [it’s the first city]. We hope to replicate it another tourist cities like Benares or [unintelligible 00:07:49] or Agra, where there are a lot of tourists coming in who would like to see the city in a slightly different manner.

Interviewer: So are you ... you  started touching a little bit about it, but the women that you employ, you mentioned that some of them are very much below the poverty line.

Respondent 2: Ninety percent of them are below the poverty line.

Interviewer: Ninety percent?

Respondent 2: The ladies who are with us, yes, most of these ladies. Another interesting fact is that women in India have not ever had any financial control. So they've not been working because they're not financially independent. They've not had the opportunity to make various decisions. For example, marriage or the age when they should be getting married, what sort of education they should follow, or what their children should be doing. And by giving them this opportunity we feel that they are better equipped to handle decisions later on in their lives.

Interviewer: Yes, so why is it important for women to have their own jobs and earn their own money?

Respondent 2: I think it's extremely important because once you contribute to the money in the family, you have a say in decisions. For example, whether you should be investing in a property or taking up a new job, or as I mentioned, even very basic things like when their daughters or when their children should be getting married, would have they should be accepting dowries, whether their children should be able to study further. Generally, we realise that it is the men who take all these decisions because traditionally, you know the division of labour, the division of work in India has been like that, where the men go out to work but the women will be staying at home and taking care of the family and cooking etc. etc.

Yes, so it sounds like the fact that they are actually earning income, it gives them more of a sense of independence, like the freedom to choose and it gives them the confidence to be vocal about what is done with the money.

Respondent 2: Absolutely.

Interviewer: All right, that is amazing though. Now Nadine, what did you think of the Pink City Rickshaw Company when you were there?

Respondent 1: I thought it was a beautiful initiative. I know just being a female travel on myself, it's so exciting to see female-run businesses and being able to support that with my tourist dollar. That to me is really exciting, and just having that comfort, like Radhika said, rickshaw drivers are male. So anytime you want to get around places you're always giving your money to male rickshaw drivers, that's where they're always taking you, and not only is it a feeling of women supporting women, which I love, it's also women financially supporting women and putting your money into their pockets as well. So it's kind of spreading it out. And it's a safety thing too, women ... I know this myself, you always just naturally feel more comfortable when you're around other women. That's just how it is. So to be able to drive around and see such a beautiful city in the safety of ... like in the presence of another woman is awesome. And also just seeing it from their  perspective, from their point of view and seeing what things they point out is different as well.

Interviewer: Right, so mentally noting when I go to India  I'm going on one of those Pink City Rickshaws. So where did you go next Nadine?

Respondent 1: So the next place I travel to was Ranthambore. So it is a vast wildlife reserve in the countryside of Rajasthan, where you can find tigers and bears and all other kinds of animals. So wild animals here means that there is actually a lot of poaching, and this is a form of illegal employment that has rifle division for many, many years. And Ranthambore is actually an eco-sensitive zone, meaning that there are no factories or industry and the women who live here actually have little opportunity for work. So the Dhonk Centre, aims to tackle that by retaining the wives of men who are ex-tiger poachers, as well as giving them an alternative form of employment to the people who were previously employed in illegal woodcutting, grazing and hunting.

Interviewer: OK, so we actually have on the line Divya Khandal, the founder of Dhonk Centre.  How are you Divya?

Respondent 3: I'm fine, David, how are you?

Interviewer: I'm doing well, I'm doing well. Can you tell me a little more about Dhonk Centre?

Respondent 3: We are basically a social enterprise working here since the last decade and the whole objective of our program is to give sustainable job opportunities to the tigers’ neighbours. Especially the ex-poachers, who were basically responsible for finishing off the tiger population in our  neighbouring [unintelligible 00:12:31] and bringing down our population of tigers to 18 in 2005. So we are the only ones who are going door-to-door to these houses and convincing the families to leave their old occupation behind and join the mainstream society with the help of these skilled training and alternative livelihood that we provide through Dhonk. So basically, what would you hear is we use craft as a medium and we train them in native crafts with the help of the local trainers who are working with us at Dhonk Centre.  And once the training is completed, the women mostly who are working with us, sometimes men, are then free to work  as much or as little as they want to and unrespectable wages and sell their produce to the local tourism market. So basically, this kind of a project is supported by responsible travellers and travel companies who understand the importance of their visit and the impact that it can make on the community.


Indian woman holding jewelry


Interviewer: So that's awesome. So you're calling from Ranthambore?

Respondent 3: Yes, yes, I am living in Ranthambore since the last 12 years now.

Interviewer: Can you describe your location for our listeners?

Respondent 3: Well, I was sitting at the edge of the critical tiger habitat of Ranthambore Tiger Reserve. Where I am right now, we have a tiger a few metres away from me right now and I can't move anywhere, I'm in the [unintelligible 00:14:12], sitting and waiting for the tiger to move away and then we go back home.

Interviewer: What do you do in that situation? What do you do when there's a tiger right in front of you?

Respondent 3: When a tiger is in front of you, you don't do anything, the tiger does everything that he or she wants to.

Interviewer: All right, so you mentioned that at the Dhonk Centre, you train the women to work with arts and crafts. What sort of arts and crafts do the women make?

Respondent 3: We basically work with the regional crafts of this region. Hand block printing, hand embroidery, [unintelligible 00:14:47]  embroidery, which is a very fantastic form of manual machine embroidery and we also do a lot of toy making and yes sometimes we do make some interesting basket weaving as well.

Interviewer: So why arts and crafts as a medium to train up in?

Respondent 3: To be honest, we did experiment with giving them poultry, giving them plantation trees so that they could sell the fruits, but everything had its own barriers. We have to find something which was flexible and sustainable at the same time, and we chose craft as a medium because I think it's a very universal medium. Everyone including children to adults understands what beautiful thing is and usually don't need to go to a college and get a degree to start working.

Interviewer: Now tell me about the sort of women that you employ and train. What is the background that they're coming from in your area?

Respondent 3: A lot of women who are working with us are single mothers. They are basically left to fend for themselves, but there are no right avenues for them to run. So a lot of them would actually have very little food for their children and themselves, and that's where we had to think about creating different projects where we could give flexibility to such women in work and at the same time make sure that their children were provided for. Considering that we are working with women who have a lot of responsibilities in an Indian system, specially in the villages, they have to manage their livestock, they have to manage children, they have to manage their husbands and even the elders of our household, right from a ceremony, harvesting, to childbirth, everything the woman has to manage at the same time she is coming out to earn some wages so it's very important that they get the flexibility.

No why do you think it is important for these women in these rural areas to develop these practical skills?

Respondent 3: Well these women actually are the direct tigers’ neighbours and the only job that they have with them is going inside the forest for woodcutting or illegal grazing. Now woodcutting and cattle grazing both are jobs which are very dangerous and they are, as per the law, illegal. But because women don't have any other avenues to run, they are forced to do this. So that's where we have to wean them from this job and get them into something different.

Interviewer: So you're providing these women with another avenue, because they're risking their lives because they have no other means?

Respondent 3: This avenue is more respectable, more I would say safe, and it's when you come to dong centre you will see the atmosphere is like a family. Everyone is relax, they're all learning, they're all earning, and it's a lot of sharing and caring that happens. When you walk into the Dhonk Centre, you will see that it's all colourful and bright and cheery, not for the travellers only, but also for us because when we come in the morning, especially the women from the villages, after going through a lot of grill and drill, it's very important for them to get a very happy working environment, especially when we're talking about crafts, because crafts and creativity need colours and happiness. So we're trying to indulge them in some colour therapy and make them relax so the output of it is beautiful products.

Interviewer: Now Nadine, what was it like being there?

Respondent 1: I felt a sense of pride, they’re really excited about the work that they're doing, the crafts, the prints that they're doing, they're all beautiful, they're all super-unique and well done and I get the sense that they are excited that they're able to do something, they’re able to produce something, create something that can provide them with an income. Also, tigers are amazing. So you have all these beautiful tiger prints all over the items, so it's a very symbiotic relationship with the tigers and the forest and the people.

Interviewer: Did you try any arts and crafts? Did you try to make anything when you were there?

Respondent 1: Yes, I did some printing and it was really fun, but they have a lot of skill. My print sets were nothing close to the amazing work that they were doing. I was like, "Oh my gosh, I need to work on this."

Interviewer: But you tried, you tried, you tried it.

Respondent 1: I tried, yes but it's just a beautiful initiative. I really think coming from an outsider’s perspective, it's really easy to visit countries and go, "That's wrong, you shouldn't poached tigers. You shouldn't chop this." But unless you give people an alternative, who are you to say they shouldn't do something? It's better to provide a, "OK, this is wrong, but how about you do this?" just like Dhonk Centre is doing. I think that that's a really, really smart way to be able to sustain our ... to live with these environments for the long run, for longevity. And you'll see there's a lot of big waves of ecotourism and just animal tourism, and how we perceive it. People are realising that animals … there are other ways to bring in tourism with regards to animals where they can live in their natural environment, they can have their forested lands, we can observe them from afar, and we can appreciate that, as that's still ... we still want to come and see that, and, I don't know, I think it's a really, really, really smart initiative.

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Interviewer: No, I mean I agree, I definitely think being able to see an animal from afar  is much less ... much better seen in their natural habitat versus going up close.

Respondent 1: And like the Dhonk Centre, it's a two part process, not only are they helping bring back the tiger population by not poaching, so they helping the tiger population thrive, they're also being able to bring in more visitors to come and appreciate the tiger population, because they are thriving. So it's like two hands, both lift each other up and they left the whole region up.

Interviewer: Yes, so after the Dhonk Centre, where did you go?

Respondent 1: So after the Dhonk Centre, we travelled to Pondichery, which is a city in the South Eastern coast of India, and there I visited a French bakery called Eat My Cake Cafe.

Interviewer: All right, now we have on the line Saloua Sal, the owner of Eat My Cake, hello Saloua, how are you?

Respondent 4: Hi, hello, hello Nadine and David.

Interviewer: Hello, hello, so what is Eat My Cake Cafe?

Respondent 4: So, Eat My Cake Cafe, like its name, is a cafe mostly a bakery, a French bakery, so we provide a lot of French sweet, like tarte tatin, tart au citron,  and everything is baked by the women from the French bread to the all the pie.

Interviewer: That's awesome, so you're turning these women to bake?

Respondent 4: Yes, so first we train them. For two months, we were locked in the factory, and we trained them to use the chocolate, to use the butter, how to use the fruit, like the apple in the different way that they were used to do it.

Interviewer: OK, can you tell me a bit about the sort of women that you employ?

Respondent 4: Most of the women, they come from the Suburb of Pondichery and mostly from the slum. So we are working with an NGO, and the name of the NGO is Sharana. This idea is taking care of the children from the slum and for that they have to take a picture of the family so they are ... they know what the father do, the mother do, and they bring us the women who are able to work. So most of them are from the suburb and most of them are from the slum with the low education.

Interviewer: Now, what is the impact that you're seeing on these women after your training them to bake in this Cafe, what's the impact that you see and the change in their lives?

Respondent 4: OK, the impact is huge. First it was the confidence, the confidence in themselves, and also ... so me, I come from France, so we don't have the same ... even if I'm a woman and even if I'm facing some struggle, it's definitely not the same. What I saw, the first thing, they don't have any friends. So just the fact to come at work and be in a team, be part of a team finally, it was a kind of surrogate family.  So just that, to be together, to know that finally everyone has the same struggle was for them a strength. And the first impact was the confidence. They were able after to speak with the delivery guy, when at the beginning they were just shy and silent. Now they are able to have a real conversation with even the men.

Like all the other ladies, you were helping them create a second family because most of these women don't have a group extension outside of possibly the family or their husbands?

Respondent 4: And even it's quite difficult for them to share with them about the struggle, and even anyway to put a name on their struggle. Because for them, it's life, it's just something that you have to live and it's something that you have to undergo.

Interviewer: You have to be bringing these women together, and essentially showing them that their struggles are not ... they’re not alone. That other women are facing this too but you're putting them in a situation where you wish now let's change it, let's change our lives.

Respondent 4: Yes, and you are able to do it because you have all the capacity to do it, you are not stupid, you have two hands, you are able to learn, are you able to do something from your life so just do it, just take the opportunity to do it. And one of the biggest impacts that I saw, it's after the confidence ... to give you one story, one of my collaboratrice, [unintelligible 00:24:57], was living with an alcoholic husband and most of the time this is the ... the alcoholism is a huge issue, I mean in South India. So she was living with him and after six months, he just, by himself, stopped drinking and now he is taking care of the child when she is going to work, and that was only because he saw her going at work every day and just trying to do something from her life, finally he just followed the right way and he just followed his woman. So for me, it was the best impact.

Interviewer: That's amazing, she inspired her husband?

Respondent 4: Yes, yes.

Interviewer: That's amazing. Now Nadine, what did you take away from all of this?

Respondent 4: My biggest takeaway is that these are all small changes within ... these individual businesses within these towns or the small cities but they make a big impact that kind of ripple and inspire other people. You've heard the different stories. Those people that inspire other larger cities, or larger towns, or largest country sets, and then eventually you'll get the whole country. It is actually very inspiring to see how ... because you always feel kind of discouraged. India is such a big country and how do you change the mindset of such a big country and you do it by starting small. It's just these amazing initiatives that spread the word and change people's perspective and change people's opinion on what women can do and give them a chance to learn and embrace change, both men and women a chance to learn and embrace change. So that's my biggest takeaway, it doesn't have to be these huge, grand events, but it starts small and then it moves up to those. So that was ... it's really inspiring.

Interviewer: I'm going to open this up to a little group discussion. Now Radhika, how vastly are things changing for women in India right now?

Respondent 2: Well I think things are changing a lot for women in India, you know, the education rate is really going up, a lot of women are pursuing higher education, families are also opening up, women are being able to take decisions for themselves, there’s greater respect for themselves from within the community and the family. But I do feel that it's not at all levels. So if you look at rural India, there are still pockets where things are still very traditional, if you look at these ladies who are associated with us, a lot of them told me they have never even going outside to the local market by themselves. They always had an escort, either their husbands or their sons, somebody with them. So initially, for me when we had to tell them that you're going to be taking tourists, a lot of them are going to be from outside India, there'll be speaking a different language, they realised it wasn't the fact that they didn't think they would be able to do it, they were really scared because they've never had the exposure, and I felt they didn't have the confidence to do it themselves. But it changed very quickly, you know, as we started with the tools, within three to six months with a lot of hand holding, we started with the first 10 and the ripple effect was very strong. It was these ladies who instilled confidence in the other ladies. In fact, finally, when we started it, I thought it would be the younger ladies, the younger women, who would be in the age group of about 18 to 25, who would find this exciting, but they were the ones who were more hesitant. Also, one of my first ladies was a grandmother. She did it just because she felt her entire life she hadn't done anything for herself. And she said, "Well now I'm old enough," she also got married when she was 13 years old, she said, "Well, I've done a lot for everybody, now I'm going to take a turn, I’ll take a chance and do something for myself." She is the one who then inspired everybody else, and told the younger ones, "Well if I can do it you can pick it up faster." So I think there's a lot of change and quickly the family is also started respecting them, respecting their choices, and now I see the change within these ladies and I think it's similar to what's happening in our country where the grandparents’ generation, a lot of them haven't had a formal education, they didn't go to school, they were home schooled and now you know, a lot of the girls are being encouraged to pursue higher education to travel, to make choices. So it's changing not. It just needs a lot of support and encouragement.

Interviewer: OK. What do you think currently right now is the biggest obstacle standing in woman's way?

Respondent 2: I think it might just not be in our country, I think it's everywhere, you know that is a glass ceiling where I feel a lot of women who are qualified and very capable, they don't get the right opportunities to take their skills further on. The glass ceiling still sort of stands.

Interviewer: Nadine, how do you think the world is changing for women for the better, based on all your travel experiences that you've seen?

Respondent 1: Like we said, or Radhika said, it's not just India. A lot of women face the same challenges all around the world. But a lot of it is about awareness. So it's like the more we talk about it the more we see other women taking on these challenges, the more it will inspire other women to do the same and the more seeing other women do these things inspired other women. I know I get inspired by ... these three ladies are all amazing, and I'm so inspired by all the work that they're doing in India. And I see that in other places around the world, just seeing other women take on roles, take on projects, take on jobs, do things that are just not typically a female job I'm not typically run or spearheaded by women or at least in the sort of numbers that you would expect. So it's things like that that kind of inspire a global consciousness and it also helps change the male perspective as well. So it's not only women seeing other women travelling on their own, and being like, "Whoa you can do that," and see women take on jobs on their own and run companies on their own, being like, "Whoa you can do that." It's men as well, it's giving men a chance to see that women can do that and they can see bus succeeding in it, and then they're able change their perspective as well, because I think that's a big part of it as well. It's not just women supporting other women, its men supporting other women. And then seeing the change and seeing and being able to support them.

Interviewer: Literally biggest kudos to all of you ladies out there for fighting these gender stereotypes, helping these women change their mindset, knowing that they literally can do whatever it is they want and if they have the confidence they can do it. That is very ... it's a very tough job and it's a very large undertaking that you guys are doing, so you guys are changing the world.

Respondent 4: I just wanted to add something.

Interviewer: Yes, go for it.

Respondent 4: All these women have the courage, because I think all around the table we have the education and the money, but these women they are so courageous because they are the ones who are struggling when they start something new. Because going out from your comfort zone, we know already that it's difficult when we have the money and the education but imagine for them, it's like a huge step and I'm super proud, everyday I'm really proud about what they can accomplish every day. And I'm sure also they are, but me, I'm just impressed and everyday I'm more impressed by them.

Interviewer: Again, you ladies are doing an amazing job, thank you so, so much. Do not stop what you guys are doing. I'm adding this all to my India trip notes to come visit all of you guys. I want to see the amazing work you guys are doing for myself. Thank you so much to all my guests. Nadine Sykora, Radhika Kumari, Divya Kandhal and Saloua Sal. That's it from out of office, powered by Contiki. Don't forget to subscribe. You can listen back to any of our previous episodes anytime. Just search Out of Office wherever you get your podcasts. See you soon.

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