Young women can lead change, too: Sanskruti’s Changemaker Journey

Young women and girls are often discouraged from partaking in ways to radically change the circumstances of their environment, but when drought became a recurring problem within Sanskruti’s village, she pursued unconventional methods to build a team and find a solution.
Source: Ashoka India

[TW: this story discusses multiple forms of trauma, including suicide and mental health] 

This story was written by Sanskruti and edited for length and clarity.

I am Sanskruti from the Satara District of Maharashtra, India. Most soldiers in the Indian Army come from my district and children begin training to become soldiers before enrolling in school. In seeing all these soldiers, I also wanted to do something impactful for people, for society. Most of my friends will say that I’m confident and I can talk to anyone and everyone. Often, my family members say that I’ve chosen a path which no one ever chose in our family. However, I believe that there is passion in the aura of my village and my district, and it only helped me become the person I am today.

Usually, people wait for the government to fix their problems, yet they don’t even care to turn off their water tap. This upsets me a lot. I believe that if we don’t start working on our problems then nobody else is going to do so either. I’m also worried about the fact that most of today’s generation is forgetting our culture, tradition,and responsibility. I value our culture because I believe that it keeps our integrity as a community, as people. 

2017 was a pivotal year for me. I went to study in a town three kilometers away from my village where I had the opportunity to attend an awareness program. Participating in this program helped me realized the problems within my own village, and it became apparent that I should do something to address them. In the Satara District, our village and Taluka Khatav tend to experience drought. Since I was a child, I have seen people from different castes and classes fighting over water. For drinking water, we had to depend on a village 14 kilometers away from ours. Many times, we didn't have water for seven or eight days. The farmers in our area were negatively impacted – financially and psychologically. Farmers resorted to simple crops, and for those that struggled to find success, they committed suicide.  

As only 3% of Earth’s water is drinkable, I wanted to focus on water preservation by creating a tool that could save water and prevent soil erosion. The only sources for water that I could rely on growing up were rainwater and the small streams near my village. Initially, I tried many approaches to& raise awareness about these problems among the villagers. My friends and I organized a street play during the celebration of Chhatrapati Sivaji Maharaj’s birth anniversary. I also organized an event and went door to door providing invitations for the Maha Gram Sabha, or big village meeting, to discuss these topics. Almost 2,000 people came together, and we rallied around the importance of water preservation on the Hindu New Year. We carried out Mashal Feri (or “flambeau”, which means “a flaming torch”)throughout the village.

Then, I started looking for a platform to build out my idea,and I was fortunate enough that Pani Foundation helped us to start our initiative("Pani” means “water” in English). I took trainings under them and tried to recruit volunteers for Shram Daan (or “labor donations” in English) to support our initiative and make our community a better place.

After building my skills with the Pani Foundation, I was ready to take on new projects for the cause. Our next task was to collect and save any water we could retrieve from streams, as well as collect rainwater. First, we marked the areas with rectangular shapes in the foothills. Then through the process of deep CCT (Continuous Contour Trenching), the water that flowed down the hill was retained in the trench and penetrated the soil below. Two people from my village, Mayur K and Yogesh K, and my teachers trained me and helped procure the necessary machines, such as bulldozers for the project. 

Through this process, the “big idea” was not just about water collection, but also gender inclusion. This initiative is meant to encourage women to leave their houses. Often, if one woman comes, then her entire family, and many times, other women from the neighbourhood also join her. It's important to have intimate conversations at the local level. Group discussions can play a major role in encouraging everyone to participate in community development and environmental conservation.

With this line of reasoning, I asked my mom for help. She is a trusted Anganwadi worker, which is a rural childcare program in India. People used to listen to her, so along with my mom and some of my team members, we were able to approach the villagers and network with a variety of people. 

I encountered many challenges in this process. I knew that nobody wanted me and the other girls from my team to work. People tried to de-motivate and disparage us, but we persisted. When I started my work, I didn’t even know the name of our Pradhan’s name (or “Village Head”). So, my first step was to identify the bright spots within my community and reach out to those who could help me acquire the necessary resources and information.

I remember a time when my team members and I were looking for a public place to host the rehearsals for the street play because in villages, girls and boys can’t meet inside a closed room. Eventually, we held the rehearsals in front of temples. I also remember my grandfather scolding me and taunting me about the benefits of all those “giant holes” that we were creating. 

My first failure was when all those street plays, group discussions, and door-to-door invitations ‘almost’ went in vain when only five ladies turned out for the big village meeting among the 5,000 villagers.

But even after all these struggles, what will always be in my heart is the joy I witnessed after we experienced heavy rainfall and all the CCTs were filled with water. All the villagers were dancing in joy. Everyone came to see the water levels, and they were amazed and thrilled. From that very moment, people started recognizing me through my work rather than my name. 

While working in a team, it's hard to encourage consistent participation. A lot of people are passionate in the beginning, but that doesn’t last for long. However, the most rewarding part about leading a team is when your team members know their responsibilities, remain focused on the same cause and are able to work, even in your absence. I remember one incident when I was working on our farm with my family and one of the team members called me and said, “Where are you? All of us are [at] the worksite." These moments always motivate leaders to work harder. 

I am witnessing the mentality of girls and women in my community change in a positive way throughout my entire village. Before, young girls and women would not go into nearby shops for sanitary napkins. We used to feel very shy. Now, we talk in front of hundreds of people, sit and discuss with the Sarpanch (the “Village Head”).People now say, “If Sanskruti can, then our daughters also can.” 

Next year, we will be focusing on Samruddha Gram Yojana, which is a government program that provides financial assistance to farmers for sustainable development in rural areas. I want my village to have its own water supply for the entire year. I hope that all the farmers from my village are satisfied with their crops and harvest. For people who are migrating to cities for manual (labor) jobs, I want them to stay here and work in their own village. In the next five years, I imagine my entire village to be a green village where no single kid pursues the wrong path. They should feel empowered and safe. 

In order to build the Everyone a Changemaker movement, I am connecting with more youth through my storytelling initiative, “Pehchan Wahi, Soch Nayi,” which means “old identity, but new thinking.” I am working with the local radio station to feature changemakers during their regular programming. Moreover, my team and I are encouraging people to celebrate the anniversaries of historic leaders and legendary heroes by engaging in Shram Daan, or labour donations, and providing a platform for budding changemakers at the local level to showcase their ideas. I believe this is a great way to further the legacies of the pioneering changemakers being commemorated.

With all that I’ve done and the people I’ve met, I’ve learned that if we ignore the problems of our surroundings, then the problem is never going to end. To move forward, we have to come together. Youth from remote villages might not hear or know about changemaking, but they do believe in change. They just need a platform - that first push.