March 25ththIndia suddenly announced a strict, rigorous national lockdown – the largest in the world, affecting nearly 1.4 billion people. People had to protect themselves and their families – often with little information about the frightening new disease. Countless questions emerged: How would people prevent the virus from spreading without proper health and hygiene information? Should families living in poverty prioritize buying masks and soap over groceries? There have been and are no easy answers to these questions for countless vulnerable communities in India and many turned to local leaders for advice and support.
In the tiny village of Vangadhra, western Gujarat state, a 30-year-old woman named Shobhnaben rose to the challenge. Shobhnaben is the sarpanch or elected leader of their village. Sarpanches are part of the local government structure of India. They represent their communities in the complex networks of rural villages across India;; The increasing number of women sarpanches in recent years has electrified and intensified the struggle for an equal society.
When India announced the national lockdown, Shobhnaben knew she needed to protect her community from COVID-19 while making sure everyone was fed and no one was left behind. She didn’t waste a moment.
Shobhnaben, still in her first term as a village sarpanch, organized and mobilized her village to prepare for the pandemic. She coordinated the rehabilitation of the entire village and created a schedule for the regular disinfection of buildings. She briefed her community on basic health and hygiene practices to limit the spread of the virus, including wearing masks and washing hands thoroughly. But their true demonstration of leadership? Shobhnaben entrusted her villagers to lead as well; She knew everyone had to work together.
Villagers began guarding the roads into Vangadhra to ensure that people returning home from other cities receive medical exams and then quarantine themselves. With the help of young volunteers, Shobhnaben identified which villagers were most vulnerable and ensured they received food aid throughout the lockdown. No one in Vangadhra would starve under their leadership.
AJWS is a grantee partner here Initiative of the Society for Women’s Action and Training (SWATI)) come inside. As Shobhnaben leads her community through this unprecedented crisis, SWATI helps provide her village with the food they urgently need.
Since its inception in 1994, SWATI has mobilized and trained women into collectives to take collective action and exercise their rights as Indian citizens. SWATI challenges traditional gender norms that often impose restrictions on women. Her community-based work supports 55 villages across Gujarat, including Shobhnaben Township. Although Shobhnaben herself was not trained in her role as a sarpanch by SWATI, the organization recognized her leadership and helped her accomplish her ambitious crisis management plan.
When the pandemic brought India to a standstill, the organization turned its work around to meet the urgent needs of the communities they serve by making sure no one goes hungry. However, its core values remain in line with AJWS ‘strategic priorities in India – including supporting the organization of women’s communities.
In fact, SWATI has been working to combat gender inequality for over 25 years by promoting women with leadership skills and visions like Shobhnaben. Her story is a powerful reminder that when women receive the support they need to succeed, their communities benefit. With the support of SWATI, women like Shobhnaben can transcend traditional roles for women and become leaders capable of tackling the most critical challenges of our time.
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