Three generations of women descend down a steep mountainside in the Indian Himalayas with newly sharpened sickles and knives, they’re collecting grass for their family’s livestock to eat and sleep on. The strongest woman will carry 30 kilograms (66 lbs) of grass back up the ridge everyday to their home.
Poonam, her 7-year-old niece, her mother and two sisters are responsible for all the manual labour in their agrarian livelihood. It’s just the way things are in the tiny village of Nathuakhan, situated north east of Nepal in India’s Uttarakhand State.
Photographers Without Borders Photographer, Lisa Xing, joined the women collecting food, taking care of goats and cows and learning computer literacy.
“Everyone farmed for a living. It was a pretty poor community, a lot of the people lived in mud huts,” Xing said. “Some of the other people had electricity and cable television. But it wasn’t exactly the best conditions...because they lived in the mountains, all the houses they did live in were built by bringing materials up the mountain.”
Based in this 1,000-person, fruit-belt town at the base of the Himalayas is a non-profit providing IT training and mobile-libraries.
Shiksha Alok, meaning Education Enlightenment, was founded in 2013 by New Delhi native Shalini Srivastava, formerly a learning and development professional at the telecomm giant Ericsson.
“She saw all of this and just felt she wanted to give all these women an opportunity to perhaps do something more than just the household work for the entire family,” Xing said.
Srivastava took her expertise and connections from her IT-hub, New Delhi home and applied them in the remote communities where women like Srivastava didn’t have the same shot at life.
“She introduced these computer classes where the women come for an hour a day, everyday for three or four weeks.” Xing said.
The lessons range from basic skills like keyboard short cuts, awareness of the internet and how hard drives work to marketing the food they produce independently.
“Tied to the digital literacy part is how to sell your fruit that you harvest by yourself, because usually they go through a middle party that ends up getting a lot of the money,” Xing said, attributing the families’ poverty to those middle parties. “Shalini (the founder) really wanted to tie what these women did (in their lessons) to their lives in order to bridge that gap.”
It’s a remarkably different experience for the women and children of Nathuakhan. The mobile libraries initiative brings books to children in even more remote villages and Xing says the children’s checking out the books, reading them while they wait in line says it all.
But change rarely comes without resistance and however measured, Xing concedes there’s been at least some apprehension towards Srivastava’s Education Enlightenment.
“They obviously know one way of life, and that the women do the majority of the work.” Xing said. “She was taking these women away for a few hours a day to do something that was out of the norm. A lot of people were questioning at first ‘Why were they learning this? Will they ever use these skills later on?’”
Despite the resistance, Xing maintains its only a teething process and support from some is strong.
“The families are incredibly eager and became incredibly supportive of these women taking the courses and they did see value in this,” Xing said.