This story was written by the ILO Newsroom For official ILO statements and speeches, please visit our “Statements and Speeches” section.

Gender Equality

From Veil to Camera: Empowering women through skills training

In many countries, women face more barriers than men to acquire the necessary skills to use new technologies and to start innovative economic activities. For the 60 per cent of women employed in agriculture in South Asia, access to quality education, skills training and entrepreneurship development tools not only represents a way out of poverty, but also provides them with opportunities of empowerment in the world of technology, as this ILO Online report from central India shows.

Article | 13 November 2008

PALDA, India (ILO Online) – As a child, Shantabai dreamt of becoming a professional photographer.

However, given that her family was poor and illiterate, she thought this would remain a distant dream. Born in a large family of marginal farmers, Shantabai only had elementary education in her village school before she was married off at the age of 13. Besides working on her husband’s family’s small piece of land, she had to care for her children and her husband’s elderly parents.

But one day the dream came true although Shantabai had to go a long way from being a purdah, a poor farmer’s wife who is expected to cover her face behind a veil, to becoming a successful photographer. What is more, through the process, Shantabai has become an inspiration for many women in Palda and the neighbouring villages.

As Shantabai faced the daily challenge of feeding many mouths on the meagre farm income, she started to look for other ways to improve the family income. She enrolled in several training courses with Srujan, a partner organization of the ILO’s Workers Activities programme (ACTRAV). These training courses not only provided her with new skills but also motivated her to seek new opportunities to enhance her income.

One such training course Shantabai participated in was on photography skills and she decided to make it her profession. However, a woman photographer was unheard of in a conservative village community, where a woman is expected to cover her face behind a veil.

Though her husband was supportive from the start, there was opposition from the family elders. But they eventually relented seeing her resolve and enthusiasm. Taking a small loan of Rs. 5,000 (about US$ 125) she managed to purchase a second-hand camera to embark on her journey as a professional photographer.

She started on a small scale, making pictures of friends and neighbours. Initially people ridiculed her choice of profession but she ignored the jibes and focused on honing her newly acquired skills with single minded determination to become a successful photographer.

Gradually, as she built up a reputation, her clientele grew. Often now she is hired to take photographs at weddings, family functions and festivities in the village. The fact that she is a woman also gives her specific advantages with other women, who would not unveil their faces in front of male photographs.

Shantabai enjoys her work, which gives her an additional average income of Rs. 2,000/ (US$ 50) per month. And she plans to set up a small studio of her own and train other women interested in learning photography. She is also active at Panchayat (local government) level in gathering information on various welfare and development programmes of the government and helping rural women access the benefits of these programmes. She also works on creating awareness among women about minimum wages and motivates women workers to fight for their rights.

Shantabai is very articulate in expressing her views on women’s empowerment: “Women should be bold and gather as much knowledge and information as they can and excel in their respective fields. This will help them to be independent and confident to lead a decent life and contribute to the development of society”, she says.

Like her, most other participants of the ILO/ACTRAV training courses are gainfully employed or self-employed, using their skills to enhance their income. So far, the programme has trained nearly 2040 people, many of them from groups in vulnerable situations, who had not been reached before.

One of the key objectives of the programme is to empower women in all phases of life through skills training thus building self-confidence and developing leadership. Financed by the government of Norway, the ILO/ACTRAV Norway Workers’ Education Programme offers 32 skills and vocational training courses, in collaboration with partner organizations in rural districts in south and central India. The courses offered include desktop publishing, photography, maintenance and service of three and four-wheel vehicles, beautician, toy making, among many others. The duration of the courses ranges from 5 days to 6 months.

Bridging the technology-gender gap

The story of Shantabai reflects a double divide in the access to quality education, training, and technology between the formal and the informal economy, but also between women and men.

“In recent years, the Indian economy has witnessed a phenomenal growth but this growth has not translated into additional jobs in the organized sector. Skills training is crucial to enable people earning a decent livelihood, whether through wage or self employment. Recognizing this, the Government of India is working closely with the ILO for the development of both an employment and skills development policy for the country”, says Leyla Tegmo-Reddy, Director of the ILO Subregional Office for South Asia in New Delhi.

What’s more, the ILO project in India helps to overcome gender barriers preventing women to take advantage of emerging economic opportunities, to increase productivity of enterprises and to access higher income and value added jobs.

It shows that broadening skills and promoting entrepreneurship, especially for women, promotes gender equality in the world of technology. In many countries, the fact that women have a greater likelihood of missing out on quality education and training adds a gender dimension to the divide between technological ‘have’ and ‘have-nots’.

“Learning how to live with technology and adapt to its imperatives, is one of the most pressing global challenges today. We must empower women to overcome cultural barriers which may prevent them from gaining access to the required skills, technologies, resources and markets. Education and skills training are not only central pillars of the ILO’s Decent Work Agenda, but represent a new way of narrowing the technology-gender gap”, concludes Jane Hodges, Director of the ILO Bureau for Gender Equality.