Project India: Empowering Women with Economic Success

After lunch, teachers at Astitva tuck children into blankets for an afternoon nap.

Dehradun, India

Preeti Kirbat believes you cannot just treat symptoms. You must intervene and address the causes of a problem. And that is what she and her staff are doing at Astitva, a small but vibrant non-profit association that helps women become more economically independent as a way to break the cycle of domestic violence that is endemic in their community.

“We do not want to do the victimization thing,” said Kirbat, who started Astitva about four years ago. Instead, Astitva helps women put their domestic skills to work, knitting and

The kitchen always seems busy at Astitva.

sewing clothes to sell in local markets, as well as cooking lunches delivered to office workers in a traditional Indian container called a tiffin. Kirbat said women who have economic means feel more confident and strong and can stand up to abusive husbands.

Astitva is located in Dehradun, a city of 575,000 about six hours north of New Delhi by train. Nestled next to the Himalayan foothills, it’s a little off the path for most tourists. Astitva is located in a neighborhood where poor and upper class people live within close proximity. Many of the poor live along a polluted river that is used for waste disposal, bathing and drinking. Many of the men here hang out in the mornings on a nearby bridge where local construction contractors come looking for day laborers.

I spent five days at Astitva, photographing the organization’s activities as part of a workshop with six other photographers under the direction of the Momenta Workshops. During our two weeks in northern India, we each spent time with two non-profit associations, also known as non-governmental organizations (NGO).

The idea is to create a portfolio of images about each NGO’s work. The NGOs, which usually would not be able to afford to hire a photographer, gets a portfolio of images they can use to show prospective donors, beneficiaries and other constituency groups. For us photographers, it was an exceptionally rewarding boot-camp experience in learning how to support NGO clients with our photography. By day we shot photos. By night we drank Kingfisher beers, ate curry dishes — and had many late-night editing sessions.

“People are always telling us, ‘Send us more pictures. Send us more pictures,'” said Kirbat, explaining that the photography portfolio will be a key component of telling Astitva’s story. “You can tell them what you are doing,” she added, “but with photos you can show them.”

To be sure, the NGOs in Dehradun do not have the global reach of big, international organizations. But the directors of the local NGOs are no less sophisticated in

Keeping up with the day care toddlers keeps the program's teachers in full motion.

understanding that photography is a powerful tool in building donor support to fund their activities. They have learned this by working with photographers and using their images, as well as from training they received from the folks at Momenta.

“We have a very strong mission to educate the non-profits on the value of photography,” said Jamie Rose, director of the Momenta Workshops. “They are invited to a one-day intensive seminar on digital communications. We help to train them on the importance of using local photographers after we leave to keep a sustainable photography program going and use multimedia in their promotions, marketing and fund raising. We do not just hand over the pictures and say, ‘Good luck.’”

For Astitva, the photography is an opportunity to show its donors and local community the range of work it is doing for women and their families. As Kirbat was building her NGO, she found it was not enough to show women how to put their home skills to work. Women also needed day care for their youngest children and some of their middle school children needed remedial tutoring.

Astitva also started a youth program. The program aims to instill young people with healthy ideas about family relationships and head-off future violence. As part of the youth

The student fellows at Astitva.

program, Kirbat found funding for a student fellowship program that now includes two boys and two girls. They work on projects that raise awareness among their peer group about gender equality.

Kirbat said poverty often makes the men in the family feel inadequate about their ability to support their families. With too much time on their hands, they spend their days playing cards with their friends. Then the drinking starts and the abuse follows.

“Sometimes they just get fed up and they get in the drinking mood,” she said.

With all these programs, Astitva, which occupies the first floor of a large duplex, is busy all day. In addition to the day care and student programs, the women who knit and sew make weekly visits. They get tips on techniques and also check-out Astitva’s store to see how their sweaters, scarves and other garments are selling.

And Astitva’s kitchen is always busy, starting with morning coffee for staff, a light breakfast for the day-care children and lunch for everyone, including the office and home

Lunch includes a colorful and flavorful entree of vegetables.

customers who purchase daily tiffiins. Food preparation is a for-profit enterprise where two women operate the kitchen as a business.

As toddlers from the day care program chatter over a french toast breakfast, Kirbat tells me she understands that she cannot change the world or even her country. But she’s gratified that she’ll be able to have an impact in her neighborhood.

“We are just working in this pocket of the world,” she said. “This is a place where we can do something.”

And now, with a fresh portfolio of photos, she’s got the communications tools she needs to have an impact on her pocket of the world.

Preeti Kirbat outside the Astiitva facility as student fellows hold a meeting outdoors.

There is plenty of color, aromas and action in the Astitva kitchen.

The knitting women meet weekly to socialize and get tips on knitting techniques.

Most of the knitting is done at home. Here women congregate on the roof top of one home.

Kirbat and a volunteer at Astitva's retail store coach a young seamstress on her apparel and price points.

The knitting women visit Astitva's store to see how their products are selling.

Mornings are very busy at Astitva. But when the toddlers settle in for their naps, the day begins to wind down.


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