Now Reading
Nuapatna With Love: Empowering Young Girls in Remote Villages in Odisha With Technology and Training

Nuapatna With Love: Empowering Young Girls in Remote Villages in Odisha With Technology and Training

  • The South Asia Study Initiative (SASI), a U.S.-based nonprofit organization, is facilitating the demand for handloom products and enhancing the skills of young women.

According to the Web Foundation, globally, men are 21% more likely than women to have access to the internet. In technology-based employment, only 24% of computer jobs are held by women. In India, one of the biggest tech hubs in the world, only 35% of tech workers are women. Among technology-driven flexible jobs, women have easier access to being hired, but they are low-wage tier jobs without benefits. Worldwide, 55% of women cannot access banking and financial services.

The United Nations 67th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW67) held in March acknowledged the critical role of technology and innovation in achieving gender equality and urged all the stakeholders — governments, the private sector, civil society, and youth — to promote women’s leadership in the design, transformation, and integration of digital technologies and innovation processes that fulfill the human rights and needs of women and girls.

Young women at the Computer and Sewing Center of the Digital Empowerment Foundation, Nuapatna. Top photo, the students are flanked by the authors.

Working with the young women in Nuapatna, a remote cluster of villages in Odisha, we realized that women always have been engaged in technology, whether sewing, cooking, building houses, and farming, but they have remained invisible. As the founder members of the South Asia Study Initiative (SASI), a U.S.-based nonprofit organization, we work with young women in Nuapatna. SASI runs a global marketplace website for weavers to promote their handloom products. We have been keen on learning about the everyday challenges of the weavers and their families, especially women, and how we could facilitate the demand for handloom products worldwide and enhance the skills of these young women.

Through our engagement with the young women in Nuapatna, we realize that technology is essential in weaving our relationship from more than 7,000 miles away. With a smartphone, these young women are plowing through all the family and social constraints to hone their skills in producing garments and aspire to become entrepreneurs and businesswomen in their own right.

Nuapatna is well known for Ikkat saris and textiles. The young women belong to impoverished families in the cluster of weaver’s villages. After high school, poverty and family responsibility have kept many from higher education or specialized skill training.

The authors in Nuapatna, Odisha.

In December 2022, we, along with an Odisha-based filmmaker, Rajesh, drove to Nuapatna. It was a beautiful summer morning in the middle of winter, and the ride was pleasant. Our trip was part of another initiative by SASI.

We reached the village a little before noon. We planned to meet these young women at the computer and tailoring training center, Digital Empowerment Foundation, in the heart of Nuapatna. These young women bicycled five to 15 kilometers from their homes to meet with us. Sunil Kumar Rana, a young entrepreneur from the village, runs this center. He is our local contact for the weavers and the young women of the nearby villages. Rana teaches computer skills and takes care of administrative work at the center, while Gayatri Patra teaches tailoring skills.

The young women were excited to see us and to share their stories. One of them, Saraswati, said she is studying for her bachelor’s degree in education; she bikes 15 km to come to college and then to the center to learn sewing and computer skills. Her father is a daily laborer. She is the middle child among three children. She aspires to finish her education and get a job; with sewing skills, she hopes to become a fashion designer. All the girls are learning the basic skills to earn a living. They showed us what they already have learned at this center. They all wanted to get to the next level in sewing but had no opportunity in the village.

We had gone there to encourage them to join a three-month training session in fashion design and professional sewing in the state capital Bhubaneswar. Of course, the young women were ecstatic but told us their parents would not allow them to go to the city for training.

We have been working with Dr. Deepa Padhi, president of the Theosophical Society in Odisha. She also serves as the international vice president of the Theosophical Society and has devoted her life to empowering women deprived of their fundamental rights to education and livelihood. Dr. Padhi runs essential skills training programs to prepare young women to be more confident in meeting the demands of modern society. We did a video call to discuss these young women’s interests with her.

These young women hail from impoverished families where their fathers work as laborers, tailors, farmers, and cow herders or are too old or disabled to work. Despite their suffering, they do not carry it on their sleeves. They all have ambitions to be successful, learn new skills, get a job, and care for their families.

After our first video chat with the students in Nuapatna, Dr. Padhi arranged for a sewing teacher from the city to teach new designs to the first group of 15 women. One group is learning professional sewing, and another group is in computer training. It was a great victory for us serving our purpose in empowering these aspiring women with new skills and techniques.

After returning to the United States, we spoke to the girls on a Zoom call to learn about their progress. They were all smiling, dressed smartly in shalwar kameez, and beautifully combed shiny hair while looking at a tiny Android telephone screen. To break the ice, I asked, “What do you like to do the most?” These young women perked up and shared Reels (video clips) on their smartphones, singing and dancing to Odia and Hindi songs. In the clips, they were transformed, looking like movie stars, and were so animated. Technology collapsed the distance between us.

Rashmita, a demure 38-year-old clad in a cotton sari, was sitting far back in the room, looking sad and bewildered. When I asked if she makes reels, she replied, “No. I have many problems at home.” The sewing teacher, Gayatri, spoke up. About two years ago, Rashmita came to the center to learn to sew. Fearful and traumatized, she could not handle physical and mental abuse at her husband’s home and moved to her father’s with her five-year-old son. How would she survive? At the center, she could not remember simple steps such as putting thread into the bobbin. Her brother said she was worthless. Gayatri was persuasive, and Rashmita was persistent. She wrote down every step of her lessons; it took her two years to complete a three-month-long course. Now she is competent at sewing. However, her sorrow has not receded. Her alcoholic husband still makes periodic appearances and insists that she return to his home.

These young women hail from impoverished families where their fathers work as laborers, tailors, farmers, and cow herders or are too old or disabled to work. Despite their suffering, they do not carry it on their sleeves. They all have ambitions to be successful, learn new skills, get a job, and care for their families. Here are a few profiles of these amazing women.

22-year-old Rinki Sahu gained admission to college, but her father became ill and passed away, and she could not fulfill her dream. Her mother is the sole breadwinner. Computer training and sewing are her means to earn a living. She said, “I am happy with this training. Today I learned about excel”.

See Also

22-year-old Liza Nayak was admitted to the Industrial Training Institute (ITI), but her father, a tailor in the village, could not afford the fees. Now she is helping her father in tailoring and aspires to make a good living.

Mini Behera, 28 years old, completed high school and now bicycles six kilometers to the sewing center. Her father grazes cows, and they manage the household with five cows, Rs. 6,000 ($75) monthly income. Both her brothers have moved away and are not interested in helping her parents. She has never menstruated and had surgery for her gynecological problem. She realizes marriage isn’t meant to be for her. Her ambition is to go to the city for a better opportunity, yet she has to stay to take care of her aging parents.

21-year-old Sarita Nayak’s father makes leaf plates, and her mother collects Sal, and Kendu leaves from the forest. Their monthly income is less than Rs. 8,000 ($100). As the oldest, she shares the responsibility of providing for the family.

These young women would like to become accomplished seamstresses and showcase their handloom weaving and textiles their village is famous for.

SASI’s initiative is a drop in the ocean. Through technology, we are building relationships in this virtual, disconnected world. These young women prove that sewing as a technology generates confidence and community. They face multiple constraints growing up poverty-stricken. But given the opportunity, they strategize their position in the family and community to create their own space. These young women weave relationships with one another and convince their families that the new skills, such as sewing, computer skills, and general education, help them increase the family’s income and provide them with a greater sense of self-worth.

Annapurna Devi Pandey teaches Cultural Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She holds a Ph.D. in sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and was a postdoctoral fellow in social anthropology at Cambridge University, U.K. Her current research interests include diaspora studies, South Asian religions, and immigrant women’s identity-making in the diaspora in California. In 2017-18 she received a Fulbright scholarship for fieldwork in India. Dr. Pandey is also an accomplished documentary filmmaker. Her 2018 award-winning documentary “Road to Zuni,” dealt with the importance of oral traditions among Native Americans.

Manorama Choudhury is a Boston-based poet and social entrepreneur, originally from Berhampur, Odisha. She is involved in the study of interdisciplinary arts. She delves into her creative intellectual pursuits through poetry, songwriting, painting, fashion designing, and other visual art mediums.

What's Your Reaction?
In Love
Not Sure
View Comments (0)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

© 2020 American Kahani LLC. All rights reserved.

The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of American Kahani.
Scroll To Top