Buried deep within the cacophony of relentless car horns assaults, little girls’ hustling trinkets on threads, Black myna’s squawks and the bzzz of countless tin can auto rickshaws, women empowerment in India is beautifully thriving. Whizzing through Delhi’s labyrinth of twists and turns along bumpy, dusty roads, the overwhelming sounds of India’s magical culture begin to hush hush. Our bodies jolt forwards as the auto rickshaw driver halts to a stop. We have arrived.
We’ve reached the very last street in a surprisingly quiet and unassuming neighbourhood. Two little girls in the last house before the iron gate, shyly peer out from the wedge in their door. ‘Namaste!’ I say, before they quickly scuttle back into their home, away from the confusing presence of all these female videshis.
We’re about to enter one of Delhi’s unmarked slums. Google maps doesn’t register it. The government certainly doesn’t register it. These locals are existing on ‘borrowed’ land, with their own rules, routines, structures, businesses and hierarchy within. It’s a fully functional organised underworld, highly vulnerable to being bulldozed and destroyed by the government at any minute. This is Delhi’s authentic upside down. Something almost all foreigners will never see, where the hidden women of India really are.
It’s scorching. The heat is beating down upon us and the dirt suffering beneath. Cow dung is solidified into thick discuses and the soil painfully cracking apart under our feet. India is the second most populous country in the world. 163 million people lack access to safe water. It’s been predicted that much of North India will even be too hot for human survival by 2100. Tumultuous heat and access to safe facilities are just a needle in India’s exasperating haystack of problems right now however.
With a deeply ingrained caste system and poor political economies throughout the states, India is bleeding. Unemployment, alcoholism, corruption and drug abuse, to name just a few, are unfortunately all too familiar. Take this off the streets and into the hidden slums of India, and the reality is heartbreaking. Anonymity within the slums immediately increases the injustices: everyone within these walls has a story to tell. They’re difficult to hear.
Underneath Shah Jahan’s lavish Taj Mahal built out of love for this wife, the fairy tale romance of Bollywood and the worship of female goddesses throughout temples, the level of respect for many women in India is devastating. The oppression is rife. Regardless of social status or caste, many female fetuses do not even make it past the womb. If they do, they can face child marriage, exploitation, physical and mental abuse, torture, rape, forced prostitution and murder.
Through the broken bricks and mud, past garbage guzzling pigs and rattled rodents, these statistics about India reveal themselves clearly before us. The women we connect with tell us stories of prostituting their body for 100 rupees ($1.50) to feed their children. Widows speak of being raped by numerous members of their deceased husband’s family.
Almost every woman here speaks of domestic violence. Engulfed in a viscous cycle of poverty and frustration, their husbands work in the slums’ ramshackle shops by day, to only delve deep into the bottom of a liquor bottle by night. Their wages drown in alcohol instead of keeping the household afloat. The anger from the men once they return, thunders down on the women with their fists. And the children are there to see it.
“Of all the evils for which man has made himself responsible, none is so degrading, so shocking or so brutal as his abuse of the better half of humanity; the female sex (not the weaker sex)” – Mahatma Gandhi, 1921
One can feel so overwhelmed with where to start, what to do and if our actions are even going to make a change.
What is the answer to the need for women empowerment?
Born from the pure passion, unbelievable strength and determination of female founder Simla Soodooboo (more on this amazing woman in an upcoming article), Hands on Journeys are waving the flag for empowerment tourism. Just as passionate about young women empowerment and education as Teacake Travels is, Simla continued to visit this slum in Delhi offering her help. They finally opened up their trust, subdued their skepticism and allowed her to come in.
Once you have worked on your own self-love, wants and needs, your adventure in life becomes so much bigger. There’s a point on a traveler’s bucket list, where one is looking to do so much more than eat a curry and see the Taj Mahal. Standing before the overwhelming beauty of the Taj Mahal has always been a dream for me. Yet sitting before a local Indian women, and empowering her for the rest of her life? That’s genuine overwhelming beauty for me.
You can transform from a visitor and sightseer to a game changer.
Sustainable tourism. Responsible tourism. Voluntarism. They have all been doing an amazing job in creating water facilities, toilets and schools. Yet as travellers with the passion and energy to give back to the communities we find ourselves in, we can go so much deeper than this and travel more ethically.
Communities need jobs. They need to discover their self-worth and skills so that they can empower themselves to live sustainably and successfully once we’ve gone. By locals learning what they are fully capable of, and putting these strengths to use, they’ll see their efforts pay off by creating their own businesses. This will push them to do so much more and encourage them to continue taking their future into their own hands.
Women empowerment programmes in India are a genuine lifeline. These women have been so physically and mentally down-beaten, they are suffering from severe depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. Escaping to a safe place for a couple of hours, to spend time with other women, share their difficulties and brainstorm together about how they can change their lives around is immeasurable.
One way for women to rise above their difficulties and create everlasting change in both their own and their families’ lives is through empowerment in business.
Therefore, first and foremost, give them the fish.
Hands on Journeys quickly saw that a significant lack of food meant families were sending their children out on the streets to work and beg. This meant the children were not attending school. And a lack of school means little hope for the slums’ future generation to rise out of this poverty. All the women we spent time with, expressed how much they didn’t want their daughters to suffer the same as them.
With bags of rice supplied to each household and the children receiving their education, it’s time to focus on the female empowerment in the community empowerment.
Hands on Journeys understands that once a woman begins to see what she is capable of, she needs the tools to make her dream a reality. Catching a fish with your bare hands is one hell of a task. Having the help of an instrument in your hand makes all the difference. The key question Hands on Journeys ask is, ‘What do you need to successfully make your own money?’
The women in Delhi knew what they needed to do…
For the last three years, thanks to the amazing work of Sonu, the leading lady behind Thrive Seed, these women have been learning how to sew by hand. As a result, they’re creating stunning quilts that are sold and used as table runners, cloths and wall mounted pieces. Once Hands on Journeys entered, it was clear that these women were not receiving the compensation they so deserved. With middle men from the USA and UK coming into the slums to take their work and then sell everything on at such an extorted price, it was time to make a change.
In my time with Hands on Journeys, we gave and trained the women in how to use an iPad, set up their own online store, and sell the items themselves. Suddenly these workers are becoming true girl bosses. They’re learning how to use technology, take photographs, showcase their work, connect with the world and make a living for themselves.
Personally being a part of this empowerment project and helping the women decide on what products they should sell, and for how much, was an honour. But most of all, sitting down with these ladies and frankly speaking with them about what it means to be a woman, from a Western and Indian viewpoint, was incredibly eyeopening.
We were both so curious about each others’ cultures and what it meant to be a woman in each. Marriage and children predictably arose within our open conversation, but heartfelt, personal discussions also happened about our womanhood and experiences.
We laughed. Cried. Opened up. We shared traumas, despairs, hopes and dreams, and supported each other wholeheartedly. This is sisterhood right here. Women coming together. Talking. Listening. Sharing. This is women empowerment.
And as a white privileged women who has been travelling the world solo, for the last 8 years, it is incredibly confusing and overwhelming to find myself in my shoes, whilst they are struggling in theirs. These ladies are not even allowed to leave the slum; not even their community’s particular area in this slum.
Here we are in the Western world, with so much freedom, fighting for sexual liberation and equal wages. Yet here, I’m fighting with these women for essential basic rights. Respect. Dignity!
You ask yourself, ‘Why?’ repeatedly. Why is India oppressing these women so much? ‘We are known as the shoes that men wear on their feet’ says one. It breaks my heart. Yet we cannot be defeated.
No matter how small this change is against a nationwide crisis, change is being made, one woman at a time.
I am so proud of the progress these ladies are making.
You can check out the beginnings of their online shop here!
Hands on Journeys are also making waves in the other parts of India’s Golden Triangle. In a Jaipur slum, the ladies have brainstormed a different idea on how they can start to bring themselves and their families out of poverty…
With the love and support of Nitesh and his wife Chitra, who sold their house to live right next to the Jaipur slum and dedicate themselves to community empowerment, the women and children here are thriving. But with a reliable income inconsistently coming in to maintain the education the women’s children are receiving, it was time to get the thinking caps on for an empowerment plan. The women in the community decided to put their amazing cooking skills to use and begin their own cooking school!
Hands on Journeys bought the pots and pans, stoves and utensils to help these women light up their entrepreneurial fires. And oh my, what a storm they’re cooking!
I was within the first group with Hands on Journeys to attend one of their cooking classes. It was ace!
With open hearts and smiles, the ladies invited us into their community and showed us how to whip up authentic Rajashthani cuisine. The aloo gobi curry you’ll learn to make is amazing and the hard work that goes into making all that roti will never be forgotten!
The beauty of Hands on Journeys is that once the women empowerment activities have been set up and are well underway, the locals are left to it to continue their success. They are the force leading to their own success. They hold the power to make the changes they want and need. Passing the responsibility to the community is the way forward. As a result, they will be able to stand tall and proclaim, ‘We did this!’
It just so happened that my Hands on Journeys tour in India was with a bunch of women! And they were absolutely kickass! I love solo travel and thrive on it. I’ve travelled solo in Bangladesh for a month by myself and managed fine…but taking on such a heavy project as this whilst touring India is something else.
I am so grateful for the support Hands on Journeys and the other girls on this tour unconditionally gave me and each other. Taking part in something as overwhelming as this requires strength, patience and an open mind. Having so many other inspiring and compassionate women around me was priceless. Girls; I love you and miss you. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
Hands on Journeys Golden Triangle Tour combines the roller coaster experience of travelling through the Golden Triangle in India (Delhi, Jaipur and Agra) with female empowerment projects along the way.
You’ll be travelling with an amazing group – because each individual’s heart is going to be just as passionate as yours. Group size is usually around 12 people!
The tour starts from $1765 AUD ($1335 USD / £1007 / €1135) per person excluding flights. The tour price includes 9 nights at three/four-star hotels, airport transfers, a passionate bilingual local tour leader and daily breakfast/lunch and 6 dinners. 10-16% of the tour costs goes directly into the women empowerment projects!
Teacake Travels readers get $100 AUD off the price of their tour
Use special code teacaketravels to receive your discount! Book your trip here!
Your tour experience is a split of 20% project work, 20% travel time and 60% sightseeing which includes entrance fees to 18 must-see attractions including the Taj Mahal, Agra Fort & Jantar Mantar.
The unique chance of empowering change in local communities, women empowerment projects and giving students and teachers a helping hand completes the tour.
*Photo Credit* A big thank you to my fellow Hands on Journeys tribe member Whitney Leigh for her stunning photography. You can find her shots on Instagram.
Disclaimer: By far the best travel experience of my life yet, was made possible by Hands on Journeys. They provided me with a complimentary trip to India on their Golden Triangle Women Empowerment tour. If they sucked, I’d tell you…but they’re now my heroes. All opinions in this article are my own. I love Hands on Journeys! Go travel with them!
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