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Women's Empowerment on a Full Stomach

July/August 2010

American corporations, mindful of their public image, often set up their own community service initiatives or ask their employees to participate in the work of local charities. Here in India, the U.S. Consulate General in Mumbai reaches out to companies in western India to talk to them about being agents of social change in their communities. To be able to speak credibly when urging others to step up to the plate, the consulate walks the talk as well. Consulate staff touch lives in many parts of the city through events such as community volunteerism, charitable giving and providing NGOs a place to hold their fundraising sales. In addition, the consulate acts out good “corporate” citizenship on a daily basis, through its canteen at the American Center, which is staffed by members of a self-help group that employs widows and other destitute women.

It’s a win-win proposition: the American Center staff gets hot Indian meals at a relatively affordable price—100 rupees or less for lunch—and the women have gainful employment and dignity. The canteen is a godsend for American Center employees, many of whom travel up to 90 minutes to get to work each day. Lalita D’Souza, one of the reference librarians at the American Center praises the canteen offerings for both breakfast and lunch, “especially their hot, wheat flour chapatis.” Indian staff describe the fare as “just like home-made.”


Kutumba Sakhi, which means “family friend,” is the NGO that runs the canteen. The women make typical Maharashtrian food such as modak (a sweet made of rice flour, coconut and jaggery), puran poli (roti with a sweet lentil filling) and junka bhakri (chickpea meal with spices, served with chapatis made from sorghum flour). On occasion the canteen features south Indian dishes like idlis, dosas, wadas, sambar and chutneys.

The organization was founded by Vandana Navalkar, the wife of a former sheriff of Mumbai, who wanted to find a way to give widows, divorcees and other destitute women a means for self-support and dignity. It’s an NGO comprised of more than 200 women who might otherwise be living on the street. Once hired, they receive two to three months of on-the-job training, then work as a trainee for a year before becoming a permanent member of the organization.

At that point, the women become shareholders in the business, earning a salary, plus a share of the profits. A portion of the NGO’s earnings is paid into a provident fund to provide a pension after the members reach mandatory retirement at 65. Retirees also continue to earn dividends from their shareholdings in the company. Kutumba Sakhi now has 550 shareholders (current and retired members). The NGO paid out 12 percent in dividends in 2009, with over 1.1 million rupees in profit. The organization prides itself on full accounting and transparency, opening its books for all members to inspect.

The women have structured the business to deal with the tough realities of their lives. Since those who are not widowed may have alcoholic or abusive husbands who do not contribute to the family financially, the women arranged for direct-deposit of their paychecks into their bank accounts. As a consequence, the women have also learned to manage a bank account and have established financial independence.

The NGO not only saved the women from homelessness, but opened up life-changing possibilities for their children. One of the women, Nagabhushan Joshi, says that because she was a member of Kutumba Sakhi she could save money and send her son to college. He is now a software engineer with IBM, she says. Rashmi Narwekar is another proud mom: she says her daughter is a college graduate working for Citibank.

Kutumba Sakhi operates 11 such food service centers in Mumbai, including fast food stalls opposite the Congress party headquarters, near the Mehdan police station and across from the state secretariat offices. The company also runs a government subsidized food program for the poor. The NGO has built a wide base of fans, customers who enjoy the hot lunches or the specialty treats Kutumba Sakhi makes during Diwali and the Ganesha festival. Sandhya Belwalkar, manager of the consulate’s canteen and a vice-chairman of the organization, reports that many customers order large quantities of snacks ahead of time so they can take them to parties in the evening. Americans who work at the consulate, like many of Kutumba Sakhi’s loyal customers, stock up on treats made by the NGO before traveling home, bringing a taste of Maharashtra to the United States.

U.S. Embassy Deputy Chief of Mission Steven J. White dined at the canteen on a recent visit to Mumbai. “It is such a pleasure seeing that, after years struggling to find a suitable vendor, the American Center canteen is being operated successfully by an NGO of dedicated and caring women,” he said. “The food was absolutely wonderful—just like home—and the warm smiles and obvious delight of the cooks in being valued by their customers made the experience even more heartwarming.”

Beth Brownson is a U.S. diplomat who recently completed an assignment as a public affairs officer at the U.S. Consulate in Mumbai.

Courtesy: SPAN Magazine

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