There is nothing easy about being a female farmer in India. Most are uneducated and uninsured, and they are compensated, on average, 30-40 percent less than their male counterparts.
The situation is even more difficult for Indian widows. Strapped with debt left behind by their deceased spouses, land rendered infertile after years of monocropping and chemical pollution, as well as a virtually insurmountable social stigma, widows “find themselves destitute, without value, social standing or support in their communities.” As a result, many are forced to turn to prostitution and begging to survive.
Tulsi tea manufacturer Organic India is working to change this. The company employs widows to harvest the tulsi, remove its blossoms, and process it in its factories. Moreover, it pays them premium wages that are on par with those earned by their male counterparts.
“It’s pretty amazing” says Heather Henning, who serves as Organic India USA’s Western Regional Sales Manager and who has seen, firsthand, the impact that her company’s efforts are having on widows’ lives. “These women, who would otherwise find it next to impossible to support themselves and their families, are able to do so through their work with Organic India.”
Equally remarkable, Henning says, is the impact that Organic India is having on Indian women’s health. Through its affiliated non-profit, the Organic India Foundation, the company supports a program whereby female health educators meet with village women to educate them about a wide variety of health issues, ranging from basic hygiene and vaccinations to nutrition and reproductive health. The educators also provide information on pre-and post-natal care. As Henning describes, “Many of the women we work with have little knowledge of the importance of good nutrition during and after pregnancy. This problem is exacerbated by the cultural tradition of feeding men first during times of shortage. We try to teach these women that they not only have the need, but also the right, to eat, too.”
To bolster its efforts to promote good health, the Organic India Foundation has established two health care centers, which offer free medical care to those living in the villages that surround them. Each center sees approximately 20,000 patients per year. The Foundation also organizes health camps, centered in villages, for those who are unable to travel to the health care centers.
In addition to their work in the realm of health care, Organic India and the Organic India Foundation are bringing change to India by raising parents’ awareness of the importance of education in children’s lives. Organic India educators collaborate with village teachers to persuade parents to enroll their children in school and assist them in the enrollment process. Although they encourage education for all children, the educators place particular emphasis on the importance of sending girls to school. As Henning explains, “Traditionally, the Indian culture has not placed value on educating girls. We are trying to change this by working with local educators and helping them and the families they work with to see the good that comes from educating both boys and girls.”
Organic India’s educational efforts also place a strong emphasis on issues related to gender equality and human rights. “We want people to understand that access to education and employment is the right of all humans,” Henning says, adding that “respect is something people deserve, regardless of whether they are male or female,”
While Organic India’s efforts to educate and empower women have had a noticeable impact, traditional cultural norms and values continue to present challenges to large-scale change. Many male farmers, for example, remain opposed to working with female widows. Organic India, which currently employs several hundred Indian widows, is not permitting such opposition to hinder its operations. “We accept these women as they are and are grateful for the strength they lend to our company,” Henning says. “And if male farmers don’t want to work with them, we simply take our business elsewhere.”
Looking ahead, Organic India hopes to be able to expand its operations and increase its positive influence in India. “As a business, we of course want to make money,” Henning explains, “but our biggest goal, and the goal that underpins everything we do here at Organic India, is to help as many people as we can.”
Photos courtesy of Organic India.
 Empowering Women: An Organic India Story