The New York Times, 4 April 2013
By Haresh Pandya
This was originally published by the New York Times.
Cherie Blair, a discrimination law veteran, is also a campaigner for women’s equality who is actively involved with nearly 20 charities, including India’s universally acclaimed Self- Employed Women’s Association, or S.E.W.A.
As founder and patron of her own charity, the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, she travels the globe to offer businesses support for women entrepreneurs in many developing nations. Ms. Blair, who is married to the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, visited Gujarat on March 19, to check out a new collaboration between S.E.W.A. and the Vodafone Foundation to help women farmers selling spices and other products streamline their ordering and distribution.
S.E.W.A. has an organic agricultural-products brand called the Rural Distribution Network India (R.U.D.I.), a cooperative that allows smaller farmers to pool with other farmers and command higher prices on wholesale markets. The cooperative includes a large network of poor saleswomen, mostly from rural areas, who sell these farm products. In Gujarat, for example, R.U.D.I.’s sales network reaches 10 million households.
The simple-looking business model has had its fair share of complications. R.U.D.I. saleswomen had to take orders from different villages, then travel long distances and long hours to reach the R.U.D.I. centers to get the products. These saleswomen had to maintain a register of multiple orders and accounts, sometimes traveling all the way to the R.U.D.I. headquarters in Ahmedabad for this purpose.
The Cherie Blair Foundation has partnered with the Vodafone Foundation India and S.E.W.A., to develop a mobile phone application that allows saleswomen to quickly and cheaply place orders for new stock and receive sales orders. It has helped them receive and deliver goods faster, and boost profits.
Ms. Blair was on her maiden voyage to Gujarat, to see how the application is working in the Surendranagar and Anand districts, where pilot testing has been going on for a couple of months. R.U.D.I. saleswomen gave a live demonstration of how an order is placed and delivery received with a simple text message,in the hot and arid Dhrangadhra town. The heat did not quash Ms. Blair’s joie de vivre, and she keenly interacted with about 100 women, attentively listening to every word they said.
She spoke to India Ink about the project, about empowering women around the world and what her mother sacrificed to make sure she got a proper education.
You spent a long time with the R.U.D.I. saleswomen who are present here. What did you learn?
It has been quite an experience interacting with them and knowing them. I must say I’m truly impressed. It seems this mobile phone application has changed their lives.
I heard many incredible stories. For example, a widow told me she was able to afford two meals a day now instead of only one earlier because this application has increased her profit and reduced her time. What is important is that these women spend the extra money to provide college education to their children.
What strikes you most about these and other such self-employed rural women in India, who earn to provide their families a better standard of living?
They impress me in many ways. My father had abandoned my mother when I was a child. So I know only too well that it’s very tough being a woman. I was raised by my mother and grandmother - two very independent women.
I’m a lawyer and have seen many cases of how strict and at times cruel our society can be towards women. But I can say for sure from my own experience and convictions that you can trust women and you can depend on them.
Give them opportunities and they will look after themselves as well as their families. I know that many women who are here didn’t get an opportunity, when they were children, for education in schools and colleges. But isn’t it remarkable that they want to educate their children from the money they are earning?
I may not have seen the kind of problems these women have had to face. But I can understand their problems very well. My mother had to give up her studies when she was just 14 to concentrate on raising her brother, but she ensured that my siblings and I got proper education. She made sure we got the opportunity that she was deprived of and I see a similar attitude among many women who are here today.
Are you happy with the way women are treated in India?
No, I’m not happy with the way women are treated, not only in India but all over the world. If you go by the global press coverage, there is no doubt that some of the women are particularly vulnerable. I know that women who are on their own as well as young girls aren’t treated with the respect due to them.
I want women to become more powerful and men to learn the proper way to behave with them. Men should treat women as equals. After all, women are men’s equals and they and their parents deserve to be treated with respect.
Do you think the 21st century belongs to women?
Well it’s about time the 21st century was a century for women because they’ve been waiting for centuries to get equality. No doubt we haven’t gotten it yet. But there is a real awareness, not only around the human rights aspects of this, but just about the sheer survival of the world depends on one half of the population getting equal opportunities with the other half.
There is more awareness today about how much women contribute to societies when they are educated, when they are economically empowered and when their voices are heard. And the sad thing is in many places none of those things is happening. This is why my foundation works particularly for economic empowerment, because if a woman has economic freedom and she has her own money, she can make choices. She is able to say no and yes. But if she has no economic freedom, she has no choice either and she is then prey to domestic violence, to lack of opportunities, lack of education, and is unable to bring up her children with the opportunities that she would want for them.
Are there certain Indian women from different walks of life who have specifically impressed you?
I never cease to be impressed by the women like the ones I met here today, who in spite of really hard circumstances still manage to find enjoyment, still manage to support their children, still manage to have as good a life as possible.
What women have I met that impressed me? Well, Ela Bhatt is prominent among them. She has just received the Indira Gandhi Prize for Peace, Disarmament and Development for the year 2011 from the president of India for her work as head of the fantastic S.E.W.A., constantly campaigning and running a huge operation, which brings opportunities to women in the poorest of communities, the agricultural workers, the salt workers that we saw today, the tobacco workers, to name just a few.
Indu Shahani, the sheriff of Mumbai, is among the impressive women politicians I have met. She is an educationist, who has run a further education institution and has been elected now for several terms.
Which other Indian women do I know? I am a friend of Indra Nooyi. I mentioned the comparisons of just how far women can go in business if they have the opportunities and Indra is definitely an example of that. And there are many more examples like that in India but not all women are given the opportunities to put their talents to work.
Just yesterday I met another remarkable Indian woman, Sunita Chaudhary, who is the first woman auto rickshaw driver in Delhi and we were able to communicate, though I couldn’t speak her language and she couldn’t speak English. She has just been involved with the Vodafone Foundation India’s Red Rickshaw Revolution, driving from Delhi to Mumbai, meeting remarkable women along the way.
And on a different level a woman I would select is Raj Loomba’s mother, Pushpa Wati Loomba. The Loomba Foundation was named in her honor. She became a widow in 1954, when her husband died, leaving her with six children. Though she wasn’t from the poorest of society - her husband was a businessman - she was left with limited income. She spent all her limited resources, making sure her boys got education and her daughters, too.
By the time she had done that, she was left with no resources and she herself understood the importance of education. And she was the inspiration for The Loomba Foundation, which campaigns for widows’ rights across the world and was instrumental in establishing the United Nations’ International Widows Day - June 23 - the day she became a widow.
What’s the best and effective way to empower women, especially those who aren’t economically strong?
I think that S.E.W.A. and R.U.D.I. are very good examples of this because they are a truly grassroots organization. They start at the basic level of groups of 200 women like the salt workers we saw, like the woman I talked to who organized the tobacco workers further up in the north of the country.
They are part of the international trade union congress and they work very much on that model, each group of 200 women elects a delegate who in turn comes to a regional group of further delegates so the whole organization is highly democratic. It’s also very large and has been able to achieve so much, not only in India but in some other countries as well — women in Afghanistan, women in Bhutan and women in several other countries help them by coming together and pooling their resources growing crops, growing better quality crops, finding and establishing wholesale centers to sell those crops and then building up a network of retailers, very small retailers, to bring quality food to their communities.
I was struck today by the women saying that because they actually guarantee that their goods aren’t adulterated - this means that they are trusted and actually bring reliable food to the poorest in the country. So it’s a great model and really works, just like the microfinancing schemes that I’ve seen across the country, too, which work on the basis of women supporting one another and making sure that they meet their obligations.
Incidents of rapes and gang rapes seem to have become increasingly common in India. What is the most appropriate punishment for people who commit these crimes?
The best possible punishment for the people guilty of these crimes is to capture them. It isn’t that the legal system doesn’t have appropriate penalties. I think part of the problem is the impunity that often follows because of lack of detection, lack of reporting, fear from the women because they don’t want to report it since they don’t feel the system treats them well.
The question is how do we enforce those laws, how do we ensure speedy justice for the victims, and sensitive justice for the victims, and also a proper response from the police force. I absolutely acknowledge that what we have seen is a renewed interest in this area but the truth is that apart from the high-profile cases, every day there are hundreds of women across India who are experiencing rape and their pleas are going unheard. We’ve got to do something to make sure that these women get the justice they deserve.
(This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.)