Sikha Roy was honored as an Ashoka ChangemakeHER, Changemakers's inaugural celebration of the world's most influentual and inspiring women. Find her fellow honorees' voices here.
Sikha Roy founded SRREOSHI in West Bengal, India, to improve the status of women through the establishment of property rights. She was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2004.
Sikha Roy’s mother was unable to get schooling, but she felt strongly that education would create a better life for the women in her community. So she made sure that her daughters got the best education she could provide.
From her mother’s belief in education, Sikha developed a lifelong commitment to empower women in rural areas, where education takes a backseat to the chores of daily life. Working in India’s remote places has its own set of challenges, but Sikha says that there are a few basic qualities that people need to have within themselves if they want to bring about change at any level.
“Responsibility is paramount,” Sikha said. “You need to realize that the lives and livelihoods of many people depend on your work, so you cannot take it lightly.
“You also need to identify and empathize with them, which you can do only by living among them and understanding their problems. All this is not possible unless you are devoted to your work and the cause. Without that, it is easy to give up hope.”
Sikha started work as a fieldworker with the Service Centre, the largest rural development NGO in West Bengal. As she traveled into the interior, she saw women commuting long distances in search of jobs.
It was at this time that she met a woman from Jamshola village (in West Bengal), who was going into the hills to break stones, leaving her five children at home with an alcoholic husband. Being responsible for her family, she endured many hardships for just a few rupees each day. Sikha found that there were many women in the same hapless situation, and she decided to do something to kick start change.
Each project is a learning experience, so doing an analysis of the ground realities before taking on a new project helps make informed decisions. Sikha and her team often work in remote areas where security is a major concern.
“To go on about your work, you need mental strength and conviction to see you through,” she says. “There are many problems that may crop up unexpectedly when you are in the field.
“It helps if you have the trust and support of the community you are working with. This is not possible overnight – there’s no short cut. We need to stay with them, be available to listen to their problems, help them find solutions, and show results.
“Only then, over time, the community will learn to trust and support you. Until that happens, it can be very difficult to spread your message.”
Sikha believes that it takes government help to overcome the difficulties of bringing about positive and permanent change that can be sustained over time. Through her organization SRREOSHI, she works with the government advocacy programs, helping the government to implement the best policies, and to intervene when the policies are not in the best interest of the community.
When asked what advice she would have for her former 15-year old self, she doesn’t hesitate to say, “Be aware of your surroundings and all that is happening in your society.
“A person sitting in an office in the city will have a different orientation to life, and a person closer to the ground will have a different view – they will see the prevalence of inequalities and injustice, and develop change-making skills to oppose them. Only with awareness, will you understand and then take action to fight the evils that prevail.”
Sikha advises those who want to enter the field of social entrepreneurship to first get a first-hand understanding of the community that they will be working for and with. Without this understanding, there will be no support from the community, and their work will not be considered credible.
Next, you need effective marketing to make people aware of your work and cause. This includes where and how to spread your message to help further your goals. Finally, take this understanding to the bank when asking for financial support.
Sikha predicts that in the future, women will be more aware of their rights and hence will not tolerate discrimination in any form. “We are trying to bring about awareness at this stage, and change is a slow process. But when change does happen, women can focus more on managing their rights and their own lives.
“Their decision-making powers will increase as they become more aware. Violence against them will be reduced, there will be more woman leaders in society, and they will be considered as human beings first—not just a woman.”