Five charitable organisations empowering local women in India

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As of last year, India is the fifth largest economy in the world (IMF), and business is booming. International trade partnerships with China and the USA flourish year on year, and 271 million people have been lifted out of poverty in the past decade (UN). Yet roughly 30 per cent of the country is illiterate (Oxfam India) and as in so many nations of the world, the vast gap between rich and poor, combined with gender bias in education and the workplace, sees India’s women in need of support.

The government is slowly changing marriage laws and widening opportunities for women, but change can’t come fast enough and that’s where these charitable organisations have stepped in. We spoke to five inspiring charities that are seeking to empower disenfranchised women in creative, innovative or simple ways, and are making a difference across India.

  • Five charitable organisations empowering local women in India

    Barefoot College

    Here ‘solar mamas’ from across the world attend an artfully tailored programme that trains them to make solar panels, without the need for traditional literacy. Based in Tilonia, a small town 30 miles outside of Pushkar, this revolutionary NGO sites Gandhi as its inspiration, and aims to demystify solar technology, enabling women from developing countries to be self-reliant. CEO Meagan Fallone explains: ‘It’s about putting the power in their hands. Respecting the knowledge, skills and wisdom that we know already exists in rural communities.’

    With a curriculum based on listening and learning to what would best serve the participants, staff developed a course that uses visual cues such as colour coding to train participating women. More than 2,200 solar mamas from 93 countries have been trained, and the behind-the-scenes complexity at Barefoot College is epic. Fallone works alongside a team of gifted, devoted women, who nurture the trainees from recruitment to graduation, and have recently developed follow-up entrepreneurial training, ‘Barefoot Enriche’, to support the solar mamas after they leave Tilonia.

    The team has fostered partnerships worldwide with more than 80 grassroots and multinational NGOs such as WWF, which act as community brokers on the ground. This partnership model, Fallone explains, also includes governments, corporations, philanthropic organisations and tech companies, with the goal of affecting a total systems change. ‘It’s time to demand that technology companies create pathways for all, unlocking our global potential,’ she says.

  • Five charitable organisations empowering local women in India


    This elegant clothing and home furnishings line doubles up as a charitable organisation that provides women with creative needlework skills, allowing them to support themselves and become leaders in their own communities. Based in the Rajasthan town of Delwara, 20 miles from Udaipur, Sadhna invites local women from underprivileged backgrounds to apply to take part in a three-month group training course in patchwork, appliqué and tanka embroidery skills, overseen and mentored by a group leader from their own area.

    Established in 1988, Sadhna now has a network of more than 700 women in towns and villages surrounding Udaipur, who’ve come through the programme and are provided with continuing support, such as ongoing health and eye checks. The team at Sadhna aims to give the women it deals with technical textiles skills that will allow them to work flexibly from home in a way that suits their other commitments, encouraging them to be entrepreneurial and financially independent.

    Interested in getting involved? International interns and volunteers are accepted on an ad-hoc basis. If you’re visiting Rajasthan you can book yourself on to the Delwara Handicraft Experience, which includes a visit to the Sadhna facility and a creative handicraft workshop. Send any enquiries to

  • Five charitable organisations empowering local women in India

    Women of Worth

    Running everything from mental-health talks to self-defence workshops, this Chennai-based charity is leading young women into a new era of empowerment, enabling girls to use their voices, learn about their rights, stand up for themselves and become leaders in the workforce, ready to take their place in modern India. WOW began life in 2006, working in schools and running conferences across Tamil Nadu, and has spread nationwide, with an outpost in West Bengal and regular outreach in Mumbai, Hyderabad and Kolkata. This year the organisation is focusing on the UN objective of gender equality, running activities that focus on gender bias and inequality in the workplace.

    As well as its extensive range of training, WOW runs powerful social-media campaigns (such as Dark is Beautiful) and manages a grass-roots support programme where a network of peer leaders are trained to work in their local neighbourhoods and support any girls or women facing challenges and difficulties in their domestic, school or work environments. The charity also provides a free counselling service to support survivors of abuse.

    International volunteers are welcomed, particularly those with skills in social media and marketing, or anyone willing to deliver training sessions to young women and their teachers and carers.

  • Five charitable organisations empowering local women in India

    Sonawala Charitable Trust

    Forget school catchment areas, what happens when there’s no school at all? In rural Gujarat, Prime Minister Modi’s home state just north of greater Mumbai, countryside schools are scarce and the children and young people of the region’s agricultural communities, particularly the girls, tend to miss out on schooling. Harsh Sonawala of travel agency India Someday and his father Nitin wanted to make a difference. They both live and work in Mumbai but hail from Gujarat and, as Harsh explains, ‘My father noticed, while visiting his hometown of Kaprada on business, there was only one secondary school and its attendees were all male.’

    Rural working-class families traditionally send their young men for schooling, leaving the girls at home, working in the fields. The father-son pair set about changing this by opening Shabri Chatralaya dormitory in Kaprada. The dorm houses 200 young women from remote villages surrounding the one secondary school in Kaprada. The trust arranges transportation to bring the girls into town – they board for the whole semester, and are taken on a field trip each year, most recently up to Shimla in Himachal Pradesh. Volunteers work with the trust to deliver careers information for the students, encouraging them to raise their aspirations and giving them a wider understanding of the working world.

  • Five charitable organisations empowering local women in India

    Digital Empowerment Foundation

    Founded in 2002, this Delhi-based charitable organisation realised early on the possibilities the internet could bring to India’s remote communities. DEF now has 600 digital resource centres across India and has digitally empowered more than 12 million people, at least a third of whom are women. We spoke to co-founder Osama Manzar, who is fiercely passionate about the female-led programmes DEF offers, explaining that the organisation chooses to target India’s women as ‘there’s the practical impact as well as the political; women are accountable and responsible, women empower the whole household and by working with women we are fighting the patriarchy.’ He finds that no one says no to finding out more about digital literacy, so it’s a route in to some of the hardest-to-reach communities.

    One of DEF’s flagship programmes, GOAL, or Going Online As Leaders, is a mentoring programme for young women and girls. A cross-cultural and intergenerational project, it links girls with women ‘leaders’ across the world for fortnightly video calls, creating a comfortable environment and giving the girls a platform where their aspirations and dreams are heard by an encouraging mentor. New global mentors are always welcome.

    Internet Saathi meanwhile, is a project that targets older participants, providing training in online skills to women in the rural communities of Bihar and Madhya Pradesh. This Google-supported scheme sees trainees then train their communities and pass on their newfound digital knowledge, furthering the impact and supporting whole villages. As a ‘saathi’ (friend or buddy) the women are encouraged to flourish as digital entrepreneurs, providing online services to their communities that will give them an income.

    Digital Empowerment Foundation also runs an extensive internship programme, which international applicants are welcome to apply for.

    For details, visit:

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