Defining Your Empowerment

by | Jun 26, 2024

I thought I had comprehended the concept of empowerment, particularly women empowerment’, through my journey of fighting against orthodox Marwadi family traditions, leaving home, and forging my own career path. However, upon joining Chaitanya WISE as an India Fellow, an organisation working with women’s collectives and one of the fellowship’s oldest partners, I encountered numerous definitions of empowerment, and some of which are as simple as “bas accha lagta hai” (i just like it).

Fashion Is Passion

Firoja Khan, a member of the Women’s Entrepreneurial Network (WEN) group at Kalamaitri, has been part of the livelihood intervention by the organization in Maheshwar since 2019. Kalamaitri was started as an attempt to economically empower women weavers, garment manufacturers and various small-scale women entrepreneurs by creating employment opportunities for them.

Today, despite lacking a formal degree, Firoja has established herself as a proficient fashion designer at the training and production centre of Kalamitri in Maheshwar. Each day, she eagerly immerses herself in creating new apparel designs, often staying up late into the night to bring her ideas to life through meticulous stitching. When I suggested that she visit our centres outside the city to provide training to other potential women, she politely declined, stating,

“Didi me ghar se nikal kar yahaan tak aa jati hun wo bhi badi baat hai; mere liye, shehar se bahar jaana toh nahi ho payega” (I step out of home and come here, big deal! I dont think i can go out of town)

Firoja, a married mother of two, recently transitioned to a full-time role as the centre coordinator in Maheshwar, earning a salary. Her decision wasn’t driven by financial necessity but rather by her passion for work. Designing, stitching, and producing apparel are her true passions, and she pursues them relentlessly despite the restrictions in her life. This is her empowerment—following her passion.

Fighting Against Society

Sapna Saxena recounts her journey with wet eyes. Sapna is currently working as a field staff with Chaitanya WISE in the SHG federation project in Ujjain. The NGO is also working on a new project of setting up Gender Resource Centres (GRC) in and around the district. GRCs are the counselling centres for the women dealing with domestic violence and harassment-related cases. Sapna is also part of this project and is engaged in training female counsellors for the centre from the SHG groups she is managing.

Sapna had a tumultuous childhood marked by abuse, witnessing her father’s daily violence towards her mother. Despite the adversity, she continued in her academic pursuits, gradually fostering both financial and emotional resilience for herself. Eventually, she liberated her mother from the cycle of abuse, providing her with a home of her own.

“Jab me field par in mahilao se milti hu toh samajh paati hu ki wo kis sthiti ka saamna kar rahe hai, is kaam ki madad se me in mahilaon ko aage badhta dekh, hinsa ke chakra se mukt karna chahti hun” (When i meet women in the field area, i understand what circumstances they are going through. Through this work, i envision women will emerge out of the cycle of domestic violence)

Sapna while narrating a few stories from the field on domestic violence

Today, Sapna lives with a sense of pride, extending empathy to women facing similar challenges in her community. She actively supports them in breaking free from abusive situations through various means and making them aware of the available resources. Sapna’s empowerment lies in her strength, evident in every aspect of her life.

A Happily Ever After

Varsha Rathod, another field staff at Chaitanya WISE in Maheshwar, approaches life with childlike innocence, often disregarding the potential consequences of her actions. She got married at an early age, driven by a desire for a fairy-tale ending, but soon found herself disillusioned by the reality of marriage. Her happily ever after only demanded for some love, care and respect which she couldn’t find in her marriage.

Varsha shares that her work with Chaitanya WISE has been transformative. She speaks of feeling valued and supported by the women in the community, experiencing a level of respect and care she never imagined. Varsha finds her empowerment in the regard she receives from the women in her community; her work has become her passion today which fulfils her emotional needs as well. I see Varsha empowered when she smiles and walks with pride in her community calling them her family.

“Didi mujhe kaam ka itna shauk nahi hai, bahut bhag daud ho jaati hai. Par mahilaon se jo pyaar milta hai uske aage sab jayaz hai. Jab mein field par jaati hun toh sab mahilaye mujhe ek sammaan ke saath dekhte hai, jo mene kabhi pehle mehsoos nahi kiya hai” (I am not very fond of working, it is stressful. But the love i receive from the women in the bargain makes it all worth it. Women look up to me with respect, this is something i have never experienced before)

Varsha while driving me off to a field 20km away from our office in a peak day time during summers of Maheshwar

The Sense Of Responsibility

Laxmi Chanda, another member of WEN group, is a bold and upfront woman. She consistently advocates for herself and asserts her rights without hesitation. Laxmi plays a crucial role in securing financial stability for her family, offering unwavering support to her husband. Hailing from a traditional joint family background, she resides with a family of over fifteen members, yet effortlessly manages household duties while shouldering professional responsibilities. Laxmi views her work a responsibility, relishing the opportunity to choose and fulfil them according to her own preferences.

For her, empowerment lies in recognizing and balancing both self-selected and obligatory responsibilities, thereby crafting a life that harmonises personal and societal expectations.

5 women surround a table and do tailoring work on it. They are all smiling.
WEN members working at the Kalamaitri Women Resource Centre in Maheshwar

Yet it is very confusing to define empowerment. We all might have not crossed the finishing line, and most of us might not even be close to it, but equity lies in the question that did we all have the same starting points?


When I think back to my starting point, I remember that I was able to go to school and wasn’t forced into marriage at the age of 12 or 15. I was free to travel anywhere in the country for my studies. Do I think I’m very close to the finish line?

No, again!

But I don’t feel any different from these women because getting restrained, no matter the reason, feels the same. And fighting against, no matter the cause, feels the same. So, maybe, empowerment is just garnering power over anything which has never been righteously provided to one. It can start from just making food of your own choice for everyone in the household to building an organisation of your own in the business world.

4 persons facing the camera and wearing fashionable clothes, on a stage. There is a lot of spotlight on them
Kalpana Pant (centre), my mentor and director of the institutions mentioned in this piece; along with a Kalamaitri member (next to her), flanked by two models from a fashion show in Indore, 2022

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