“Didi ap yahan pe rahan, yahan se uppar janah bahut mushkil ha” Sakina baji said .
You stay here, it’s difficult to go up from here.
I immediately nodded. I looked up to my right side to see three stories of cement slab houses built on top of each other. On the right corner, there was series of six foot bamboo ladders tied to the houses with rope.
I watched Sakina baji skillfully climb each ladder, grab her notebook and come down in a matter of minutes. I cringed as the ladder shifted with each of her steps, nervous that she might fall.
The day-to-day activities such as climbing up to their homes or cooking for 10+ plus people on two stovetops for the women of Nizamuddin Basti are extremely difficult. Despite these challenges, the women of Insha-e-Noor — a handicraft enterprise comprised of approximately 60 women and Zaika-e-Nizamuddin, a group of nine women who make traditional Mughlai cuisine — have committed to earning an income. Their decision to work towards their economic independence often exposes them to criticism from their husbands and in-laws, and yet they remain dedicated.
Both Insha-e-Noor (IeN) and Zaika-e-Nizamuddin (ZeN) are supported by my host organization, The Nizamuddin Urban Renewal Project – a public and private partnership between the Aga Khan Foundation, Aga Khan Trust for Culture, South Delhi Municipal Corporation, India Archeological Survey. My department – the socio-economic team – has been focused on improving the lives of Hazart Nizamuddin Basti residents.
Aside from our day-to-day work expanding the business scope of both groups, my interactions with members of Zaika-e-Nizamuddin and Insha-e-Noor constantly force me to challenge my perceptions of development work, ranging from the value and purpose of field work to the effectiveness of the large institutions in the development space.
The Ripple Effect, in particular, is one theory that I have been able to contextualize after years of reading about it in both academic settings and in the news. The Ripple Effect is the idea that like a rock thrown in the water, providing a woman with a livelihood opportunity or fulfilling her right to an education will not only benefit her, but also her family, her community and ultimately all of society. Originating from a study in Uganda, the Ripple Effect in the context of gender equality has been proven by countless studies.
Truly, the current literature analyzing the impact of the empowered women contains impressive statistics. Educated women are more likely to marry later, have smaller and healthier families, work and earn income, invest in their own children, therefore breaking negative cycles for the next generation.  As little as a 1% increase in girls completing secondary school boosts the entire country’s per capita income by .03%.  Well-respected international development organizations like Plan International have used “The Ripple Effect” to develop entire gender equity programs in regions like Sub-Saharan Africa. (3)
While it is hard to deny the effectiveness of “The Ripple Effect,” it seems like the dominate narrative around the theory often misses the discussion around one crucial part of the analogy: the rock that begins the ripple.
Yes, an empowered woman will undoubtedly benefit everyone around her; but that benefit will not come without the provision of an opportunity and the woman herself. It’s important to discuss the barriers that lie between the existence of the “rock” and its journey into the palms of the right hand, and the importance that development institutions play in that process.
My Fellowship gave me a broader understanding of the relationship between development practitioners and the beneficiaries of their programs – and how necessary it is for both parties to trust one another to be impactful. In creating and implementing women’s empowerment programs, development practitioners have to actively make sure they are addressing the tangible and intangible barriers that hold women back from being equitable members of society.
The women’s livelihood component of the Nizamuddin Urban Renewal Initiative has actively worked with the community to address the barriers that are most relevant to the women in Nizamuddin Basti, such as transportation and skill training.
Both the inability to afford transportation and concerns for safety prevent women from being able to work. On average in Delhi urban dwellings, 75% of men work within 12 kilometers of their homes, while women work 5 kilometers from their homes.  The statistic reveals the lack of mobility for women that exist in urban environments due to barriers such as lack of access to transportation and societal expectations. Beyond the structural barriers, women in the Basti face the additional burden of living in a conservative community.
In the same vein, women are frequently held back from employment by inability to access adequate skill training. Aga Khan Foundation’s (AKF) efforts to work with Nizamuddin Basti women to tackle these obstacles were apparent to me. After all, both groups – Insha-e-Noor and Zaika-e-Nizamuddin – are housed directly in the center of the settlement and are easily accessible to everyone in the Basti. Additionally, each member of the project receives frequent trainings, the necessary resources to complete their work, and even exposure visits. When new members were recently added to the binding and packaging unit, Swati – the women’s livelihood officer – worked with existing members to crate a two-week training that would give them a base-level understanding of the unit, and then they could start earning. Similarly, Swati organized an exposure visit for members of Zaika-e-Nizamuddin to Lucknow so they could learn from another city that specialized in non-vegetarian food.
Providing both IeN and ZeN ample skill training to improve their craft in a central, safe, and accessible location has contributed to the success of the program. Early on, it was clear that AKF was active in understanding and mitigating both challenges; however, it felt like I was missing an element from fully understanding the reasons behind the success of the women’s livelihood program. Something was uniquely special about how AKF was working with the women of Nizamuddin Basti.
I knew exactly what was missing from my understanding when I overheard Noor Jahan, one of the members of Zaika-e-Nizamuddin, being interviewed about the project.
“Aga Khan ke yahan aanay se pehle, ye nahi tha ke Basti ke khavanteen ko kam karna nahi aatha tha. Kam hume aatha tha leiken hum zaada ghar me hi rathe the. Aga Khan ke baad hum me confidence aya hai, hum ne bahir ja ke bola seek ha,” said Noor Jahan.
Prior to Aga Khan [Foundation] working in the area, it’s not that Basti women didn’t have any skills. We had some skills but we mostly stayed at home, by participating in Aga Khan [Foundation] programs, we became confident, we learned how to speak and advocate for ourselves, out of our homes.
Her words shed light on how intentional AKF had been in not only structuring the program, but creating a relationship with the participants that instilled confidence and created a sense of ownership and initiative in them. Interactions between the community and AKF foster an environment of trust and work in a collaborative way to shift the culture of how woman are viewed in the Basti community. Being able to contextualize the significance of the relationship allowed me to understand how the women’s livelihood staff worked directly with the community to build Insha-e-Noor and Zaika-e-Nizamuddin.
When the Aga Khan Foundation first began working on socioeconomic programs in Nizamuddin Basti, there was no grand plan to create financially prosperous enterprises. At first, AKF created a craft center that taught women how to tailor. From there, the craft center has grown to feature five different crafts with over 80 members. The center now frequently completes large orders for companies life like Fab India and Indigene. Though the AKF staff helps with the day-to-day operations, they use community meetings and workshops to not only keep members informed but directly engaged in decision making.
Similarly, Zaika-e-Nizamuddin was created to address the 50% malnutrition rate of children in Nizamuddin Basti. The goal was to sell healthy and nutritious snacks in the Basti as an alternative to the readily available junk food. After several years, the members of Zaika-e-Nizamuddin themselves proposed the idea of expanding their repertoire to include catering. So AKF staff worked with members to provide culinary training and finalize a menu featuring traditional Nizamuddin cuisine. A few years later, ZeN now typically has multiple catering orders every week.
With both groups, AKF’s goal was not to just provide a sewing machine or money for ingredients, but a dedication to work alongside the members, to teach soft skills and instill confidence and trust that over time members would embrace this opportunity and create something that everyone can be proud of.
Looking into the future, it is hard to predict the direction of both Insha-e-Noor and Zaika-e-Nizamuddin. With the level of grit I observe from the women everyday, I remain hopeful that both groups will successfully exist beyond the scope of the AKF’s work in Nizamuddin Basti. All I know that is no matter how far the “ripples” of these women’s livelihood project will extend within Nizamuddin Basti or in the city of Delhi, at the center of it will be the trail-blazing entrepreneurs of Zaika-e-Nizamuddin and Insha-e-Noor representing the resources, the trainings, and the confidence that was instilled in them by the dedicated staff members of the Aga Khan Foundation.
- United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Office for ECOSOC Support and Coordination. “Achieving Gender Equality, Women’s Empowerment and Strengthening Development Cooperation.” Achieving Gender Equality, Women’s Empowerment and Strengthening Development Cooperation. United Nations, 2010.
- Herz, Barbara, and Gene B. Sperling. “What Works in Girl’s Education: Evidence and Policies from the Developing World.” Council on Foreign Relations, 2004.
- “The Ripple Effect of Empowering Girls and Women – Plan Canada.” Plan Canada Blog, 13 June 2018, stories.plancanada.ca/the-ripple-effect-of-empowering-girls-and-women/.editmore horizontal
- Sonal Shah, Kalpana Viswanath, Sonali Vyas and Shreya Gadepalli. “Women and Transport in Indian Cities.” ITDP and Safetipin, New Delhi, 2017.