This woman’s social enterprise helps rural women in marginalized communities find modern jobs
In September 2020, Surabhi Yadav was part of Covid relief work when she met Phula Kumari, a 19-year-old Musahar Dalit woman from Katrasin, Bihar.
Phula made an unusual request that no one in her community was asking for. “Didi phone calls by kuch bhi padha do, main padh lungi,”- teach me something over the phone, anything”.
The literacy rate in Phula community is less than one percent.
“And there she was, clinging so tightly to her dreams, building a path that she hadn’t seen around her at all in her life. She was desperate to continue her education after the 12e standard – a peripheral feat in itself. His insistence on learning was so real that it led to the launch of Sajhe Sapne amid the pandemic lockdown,” says Surabhi.
is a non-profit organization founded by Surabhi to ensure women in rural India have the opportunity for a flourishing career. Surabhi holds an MTech degree in Biochemical Engineering and Biotechnology from IIT-Delhi and a Masters in Development Practice from University of California, Berkeley.
“It was so easy to connect with Phula’s sincere desire to learn and grow because that’s how I was raised by my parents – with plenty of abundance to think and create despite having no money. It reminded me of my late mother’s determination to fight for her education – a quiet feat that saw her complete her education through eighth grade, ultimately ensuring that her four children, including two daughters , study as much as they want, for as long as they want,” Surabhi says.
Get inspired by Sapnewaalis
The first step was to identify Sapnewaalis – rural women wishing to study beyond the 12th but who do not have the means to do so.
On the one hand, she points out, there was Sapnewaalis as is bhabhis and mess (aunts) back in rural Bundelkhand, who, as she grew up, often asked her “hire us as a cleaning lady in your office, we will learn by seeing you work” – a limited expectation but a sincere desire for personal growth.
“And on the other hand, there is Sapnewaalis like my mentors, Sandhya Gupta (Aavishkaar), Neha Buch (Pravah), Kamla Bhasin, who constantly set new benchmarks for what dreams could mean not just for themselves but also for their communities,” he adds. she.
Surabhi’s dream was to see rural women moving, seeing and honoring their own potential as thinkers, dreamers and creators.
She explains: “This happens in two ways: one of the reasons why rural women have been excited to join our program is when they see former students of Sajhe in their own villages, and see them working and grow. The second way to get in touch with the wider network of Sapnewaalis in remote areas, it is thanks to our rich network of community organization partners and non-profit organizations working in rural areas, particularly in the field of children’s education.
Sajhe Sapne organizes information sessions as well as an assessment for interested students. The basic minimum requirement is to be over 18 years old, to have studied at least up to the 11th level, to know basic English and to have a strong sense of logic, as well as to be emotionally ready for a nine-month residential program away from home. . Depending on the career path they choose (current: Development Management, Elementary Math Teacher, and Web Development), the level of math knowledge is also checked.
After the assessment is complete, students, with the help of community partners and team conversations with parents, visit the residential campus at Sajhe Sapne in Himachal Pradesh for the nine-month course.
The program follows an inquiry-based pedagogy – sessions are led by their questions, arguments and logic, not just lectures.
“The role of educators on campus is to be facilitators, not teachers. It’s heavy with homework, projects, internships, and taking responsibility for your own learning. They are given means and tools to enter professional networks in the formal labor market so that they can help themselves to find a job. Through our engagement of alumni, we ensure that they can lean on this group for support and mentorship as and when needed during their new jobs,” Surabhi says.
The nonprofit is supported by partnerships with other organizations like Aavishkar Yatra, which not only provides mentorship but has also given it a home – a beautiful campus in Himachal Pradesh. It is funded by Nudge, Social Alpha and Cini by Tata Trusts. “For our two cohorts, the students came with the help of Aavishkaar, Narigunjan, Ibtada, Project Potential, Milaan, Alive Indian Foundation among others,” Surabhi says.
Encouraging First Generation Learners
Sajhe Sapne’s first cohort attracted 25 young women from six different states. Everyone graduated with a job offer of at least Rs 15,000 salary, the highest being Rs 25,000.
Surabhi clarifies, “It is not only the salary that we are focusing on as an outcome, but also mentoring support and opportunities to further develop skills and salary over time. In the current cohort, we have 45 young women from approximately 16 different villages in seven different states. They are currently in the middle of the program doing internships at places like Feminism in India, Central Square Foundation, People’s Archive of Rural India and more.
Sajhe Sapne works exclusively with first generation female learners who are marginalized due to caste and class.
“Our students come from Mahadalit, Dalit and Bahujan identities of different religions. They are very disadvantaged caste groups with average literacy rates below 1% and poverty indices among the highest in the country. All of our students come from economically and socially disadvantaged families, including very young married women, daughters of single mothers, etc. Each of them is a first-generation student – not just in her family but even in her village,” she adds.
The long-term goal is to make Sapna centers (spaces where women come together to develop their learning, income, etc.) an integral part of village life in India. Surabhi also wants to launch comprehensive education and job search programs for different career paths, and bring them to remote villages through existing government and non-profit channels.
At the head of the non-profit organization is a team of women who divert the attention of the development program for rural women from their needs (silai-kadai-bunai-beautician) to their desires (opportunities to increase their skills, salary and social status).
“We are transforming the way knowledge is produced and communicated. To do this, we organize and create a high quality professional skills program in languages other than English. We are changing the way professionalism is defined – very masculine standards of productivity and leadership – to make room for young rural women in salwars in offices with glass doors. Every graduate student from Sajhe’s first cohort working as a young developmental practitioner has made a crack in the glass ceilings created by their caste, class, gender and geography,” says Surabhi.
She looks forward to the day when young women in the villages will earn stable salaries, create jobs for others and make great strides in their careers.
“There would be a day when the prevailing perception of rural women would not switch between them being either objects of our curiosities (romanticized for their innocence) or subjects for their pity (so much pain), but seen for their complex identities. When this shift in the dominant gaze from their pain to their potential happened, we would have succeeded,” Surabhi concludes.