Empowering marginalised women: The inspiring journey of Dr Kalpana Sankar and Hand in Hand India

Empowering marginalised women: The inspiring journey of Dr Kalpana Sankar and Hand in Hand India

Success comes with its own ironies: Sankar’s PhD was not in economics or development studies, but in nuclear physics.

Whenever Dr Kalpana Sankar thinks about Meera Soundarajan, a radiant smile breaks out. Meera belongs to the backward Irula community in Tamil Nadu’s Thiruvallur district. Her family eked out a living by working in brick kilns, going into the nearby forest of their village to cut wood and graze cattle. Rescue came in the form of Sankar, who co-founded Hand in Hand India, a global organisation that helps marginalised women get jobs, become entrepreneurs as well as promoting child literacy. She persuaded Meera, who had dropped out of school, to go back to study. It was good advice; the girl performed admirably in the Class 10 exams, and won the Pratibha Award, given to meritorious students by the Government of Andhra Pradesh.

Success comes with its own ironies: Sankar’s PhD was not in economics or development studies, but in nuclear physics. She knows the importance of education: she has a doctorate in Women’s Studies and Self-help Groups, an Executive MBA from the prestigious TRIUM offered by NYU Stern School of Business, HEC Paris School of Management and London School of Economics. Married to a bureaucrat, then a district collector in Coimbatore, she met people who came for help from the government.

In 2004, she met Swedish businessman and philanthropist Percy Barnevik who asked her to manage a small charity working to eradicate child labour in Tamil Nadu. Barnevik was in Kancheepuram where he witnessed first-hand the devastating impact of economic hardships The district is Number One in the Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) in the state: MPI measures the percentage and intensity of poverty in the population. Barnevik and Sankar set up Hand in Hand India to bring financial security to poor women by creating jobs.

Dr Kalpana Sankar
Dr Kalpana Sankar

“Unless you empower the families, they will not send the children to school,” says Sankar. The group provides subsidised looms and sewing machines to mothers and skill training to the youth. They support entrepreneurship at the grassroots. “We facilitate loans and provide options for their chosen trade,” says Sankar, who set up the Belstar Microfinance Limited as part of her mission.

The funding comes from philanthropists in India and abroad, corporates and the government. The organisation, with branches in 18 states has replicated its model in Cambodia, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Brazil, South Africa and Sri Lanka and has so far helped 40 lakh women. “My aim is to create 10 million jobs by 2025,” she says. She hopes girls like Meera do not miss out on opportunities.

Asked whether the middle class lives in a cocoon, she says, “The rich-poor divide is there. People are self-absorbed. They need sensitisation.” She believes if school and college students spend time in the villages, they will become aware of the travails of poverty. Conscience is a powerful tool, and among youth especially, is a helping hand.

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The New Indian Express
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