Economic Empowerment as a Human Rights Intervention

In April 2016 I traveled to Bundi, Rajasthan with a group of AIF Fellows to learn more about the livelihoods work being done by Srijan – specifically as it relates to agricultural development and the economic empowerment of women. While there, the other Fellows and I heard Srijan staff and women from self-help groups speak about their experiences. The Srijan staff members spoke at length about the ways they have implemented livelihoods interventions such as teaching best practices in farming, connecting farmers to markets, setting up a warehouse distribution model, and starting a dairy production site in Duni, Rajasthan.

Leading up to the conference and during the first day of sessions, I expected to hear about topics consisting mostly of raised crop yields, better livestock practices, and higher earning potential. The speakers certainly delved into those topics; however, what surprised me was that the women in the self-help groups spoke on an additional topic. Their stories illustrated a connection between agriculture, economic empowerment, and human rights.

When asked about how life has changed since joining their self-help groups, the women cited social factors as a significant change. In one example, two women who had learned better farming practices stated that their husbands were initially resistant to implement the practices the women had suggested. However, after some coaxing, their husbands agreed to let them farm a portion of the land so at the end of the season they could assess whose practices led to a better yield. When the women’s practices proved to be of higher quality output, their husbands conceded that their wives had in fact chosen better practices that they would then implement.

The women told stories of how, before joining the self-help groups, they had not been allowed to leave their villages. After demonstrating their knowledge and financial skills in their farms and communities, however, they had been able to go to conferences in Jaipur, among other travel. They had begun choosing the way they dressed and presented themselves to in-laws. And the community as a whole began to treat boys and girls equally – valuing their futures the same and ensuring the girls’ right to education.

Maitree Mahila Dairy and Agriculture Producer Company
Maitree Mahila Dairy and Agriculture Producer Company

It was during these stories I realized that the initiatives Srijan and the self-help groups implement are not only economically empowering as they have raised incomes, but can also be viewed as a path for ensuring the protection of human rights. As a result of their economic empowerment, the women and girls were able to secure many other rights. Of course, this route of intervention is open to critique, as the women and girls should not have to prove anything in order to receive their rights. However, in the given situation, it has shown to be a helpful angle to approach their rights.

Reflecting on my past experience, this approach of addressing one issue in order to affect another has also held true. In my time working in community development and housing in Detroit, our interventions were focused on finding permanent homes for low-income residents of the city. Once our clients had secured a home, this led to much lower monthly housing expenses and, in turn, a better economic situation for those individuals and their families. Though our mission was to stabilize neighborhoods through assisting residents in obtaining previously vacant houses, the outcome was also an economic change for those clients.

At my host organization – People’s Watch – the human rights interventions that are implemented can be grouped into three general categories: education & movement-building, preventive advocacy, and responsive/legal intervention. Education has played an integral role as People’s Watch has hosted the Institute of Human Rights Education, which is the largest human rights education initiative in India, along with movement-building with citizens at the grassroots level. The preventive aspect of the work in which I am involved centers on research and advocacy to government entities. The responsive and legal intervention aspect of the work at People’s Watch takes place after a human rights violation has occurred and justice is sought. My time in Bundi has encouraged me to consider an additional avenue for human rights protection.

Looking forward to the future, this interdisciplinary approach can be useful in many settings. For example, environmental injustices take place in predominantly low-income, marginalized communities. When the community suffering from an injustice has economic and ethnic privilege, they tend to get their grievances addressed much more quickly. If we take this approach of economic empowerment, we might expect a situation where the community is better able to provide for themselves financially and will also be able to leverage their social capital in order to address human rights violations. Again, the previous critique remains relevant and I agree that rights should be granted solely on the basis of all humans’ inherent value; however, it does seem that economic empowerment interventions can be a catalyst for ensuring other rights are respected.

While agriculture, economic empowerment, and women’s rights are separate issues, the women of the self-help groups in Rajasthan have shown the ways that even one very focused intervention can transform a community in multiple ways. It is a reminder that no aspect of life is completely isolated from another and that education, advocacy, and legal assistance need not be the only approaches to promoting human rights.

This article was originally published on April 26, 2016 on the American India Foundation’s Clinton Fellowship blog.