While working with the World Bank as a Policy Advisor (2003-2009), Soumya Kapoor Mehta was part of a study on poverty. As a part of the study, she would speak to poor people on what poverty means to them, and more importantly, what they do to move out of poverty. “Because they're not sitting idle; everybody would like to change their circumstances in life. So I went to about 15 countries, interviewing poor people - about 15,000 interviews,” she recollects, in a recent chat with MAKERS India. “These surveys and qualitative data collection was an important milestone in my career, because then you start understanding that women's experience of even poverty or health or education or whatever actually influences their life chances and outcomes is very different from that of men’s,” she adds.
Soumya currently heads IWWAGE – Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy – a research and advocacy firm working for women’s economic empowerment. Soumya tells MAKERS India, “At IWWAGE we believe that if we economically empower women, we'll be able to, unleash their social, cultural, and political empowerment.
New Delhi-based Soumya has earlier worked with the UNICEF, Government of India, the Centre for Policy Research (CPR) and the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA). She has a Tripos Degree from the University of Cambridge in Economics and a B.A. (Hons.) in Economics from St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University. She has also been a Visiting Fellow to the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.
Soumya has worked for 18 years in the development sector, spanning research around gender, women’s empowerment, poverty reduction strategies, social inclusion challenges, etc. At IWWAGE, she leads the team in working with multiple government bodies to bring changes for women’s lives at the grassroot level – especially from underprivileged classes and lower castes.
Speaking to MAKERS India, Soumya elaborated on the what, why, and how, of IWWAGE’s activities. “One of the initiatives that we work with is the National Rural Livelihoods Mission of India (NRLM) - a federated structure of women's self-help groups in rural areas, formed in the 1980s. Across India there are 17 million rural women who are a part of this federated architecture – from the village SHG level, federated to the block, the district, the state, right to the centre,” she says.
Additionally, IWWAGE is trying to spread the word through these self-help groups on how to register for the COVID-19 vaccine too. “Official mechanisms will only grow to a particular extent, but if you train women themselves, who are a part of these groups, then the word spreads faster,” says Soumya. “We are training the government staff as well. NRLM, as part of this program, is also training its own rural development department staff - sensitizing them on gender issues, women's rights, and entitlements,” she points out.
Watch the video to find out more.
(Interviewed and produced by Athira Nair)