Pathways to Empowerment

Cassandra Chakouch and Sameen Zoha Alam talk to Indian women searching for solace.

“He goes to work in the morning and in the evening he drinks alcohol. He doesn’t want to eat food, only drink until he is not in his right state of mind. I have a lot of tension. I worry about my children. I am here today so I am able to look after my children, if I am no more, who will look after my children? No one will.”

It’s 10am in Jodhpur, India and the mercury has already passed 30°C. Despite the heat, over 20 women and girls have gathered at Sambhali’s Women Empowerment centre  for the opportunity to learn English, Hindi, maths and practical income-generating skills such as sewing and embroidery.

It’s here where we meet Kiran Ji, garbed in a bright yellow sari.  Married since the age of 18, Kiran Ji’s estranged husband’s addiction to alcohol left her as the primary provider for her three sons aged 17, 13 and 10.

Up until now, her life has been defined by the patriarchy of Indian society and its adherence to the ancient caste system. This has denied her the right to a full education and has meant that she’s had to rely on her husband for income and support. Kiran Ji’s husband spends most of the family’s income on alcohol and as a result she now works in order  tofeed her children and continue to send them to school.

“I myself am also working. I work as a cleaner at people’s houses,” she says. “I wake up at 4am, drink tea or water, cook something for the children. I go back home then and get the children ready for school and by 8:30-9am I leave for Sambhali. Sometimes I don’t get time to eat food.”

By coming to Sambhali, Kiran Ji is hoping to take advantage of the opportunities that were denied to her in her younger years. She proudly states that through her training at Sambhali she can now stitch blouses, Kurtis, Marwari suits and Salwar suits.

“Sambhali is very important to me, I get an education, I get clothes to stitch, I even got a sewing machine from Sambhali… I stitch my children’s suits and uniforms. If I get anything sewn from outside it is very expensive… but now I do it myself in the evenings when I get some time.”

Sambhali’s breadth of impact transcends age. While Kiran Ji has found a new sense of self-efficacy at the age of 40, younger students also cling to the Sambhali to have opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have access to.

Mona and Aarti are 15 and 17 years old respectively. As well as being cousins, they have both been married since they were 6 years old. When we asked them what their husbands did for a living neither of the girls knew, because in spite of being married for the past decade they have never met their husbands.

We inquire further, asking Aarti where her husband lives. Our question is met with a brief moment of confusion.  Her face goes blank as she turns to her cousin Mona for the answer and a few words are mumbled in Hindi. “Madhya Pradesh”, she tells us. Once Aarti turns 20, she’ll leave her family’s hometown in Jodhpur, Rajasthan and move to her husband’s home state—what town or city within the 308,252 km² state of Madhya Pradesh is never specified.

Mona’s future is similar to Aarti’s, and when she is of 20 years of age she too will leave her parents’ house to live with her husband.  A third of the world’s child brides are Indian and the trailing rate of women’s literacy compared to men’s is evidence of the negative impact child marriage has had on an individual’s schooling and job prospects. This difference in gender literacy is even more prominent in the conservative state of Rajasthan where Sambhali is based.

When we asked Aarti what Sambhali meant to her she simply responds with “everything”. Neither she nor Mona have had the opportunity to continue their schooling, so with the exception of Sundays they’ve been attending Sambhali every day for the past two years. When speaking to the other girls at the Empowerment Centre, it becomes clear that the skills they learn at Sambhali have filled them with a new sense of self.

“When I come I know what I want… we don’t go to school, we don’t know how to write and we come here and learn” Aarti tells us.

“What happens when you turn 20 and you go to your husband’s house?” Mona and Aarti never really give us a straight forward answer to this question and it’s met instead with awkward laughter followed by a brief silence as the girls look at each other. Relocating to another state will make it impossible for the girls to continue their education, and as we leave Mona and Aarti, there’s a sense of uncertainty of what will happen several years from now when they leave home.

It’s this uncertainty of what the future holds that seems to resonate with all the girls here. Kripa, a student at the Empowerment Centre tells us of her dreams to one day be either a model or an English teacher. She tells us she doesn’t know if these dreams will come true, but prays to God that one day they might.  Nurturing individuality and personality is one of the main goals of Sambhali and no one epitomises this more than Kripa. Charming, zealous and at times unapologetic, she has a sense of self that is both a pleasure to witness and incredibly captivating. When asked why she continues to go to Sambhali she responds with “to make something out of my life”. In the face of uncertainty there’s a sense of hope, that through what they’ve learned and the skills they have gained, maybe the girls can become masters of their own destiny.

Every morning at Sambhali, before lessons commence, the centre echoes with harmonious voices of the girls in prayer: “We shall live in peace, we shall live in peace someday, deep in my heart I do believe so that we shall overcome some day.” Simply, this is a  daily sentiment that one day,  education equality and peace will be a reality for all women.

Sambhali is always looking for donations and volunteers, especially those who have a background in sewing or teaching. More information can be found at