As a young girl, Akta Singh was deeply impacted by the discrimination women faced in an orthodox society.She draws her inspiration from her father who is a social worker and her grandfather who gave her the first opportunity to step out of her village to support a local school. Her husband stood by her as she set up PARAS, a non-profit foundation that works on women's issues and women farmers in a deeply feudal region of Eastern Uttar Pradesh. She set up a school to encourage parents to send their girls for education. Her foundation works with farmers (women and men) through a Resource Center to train them on water management techniques and help them reduce their irrigation costs. Akta works in some of the most challenging social contexts in India but she believes that women deserve an equal world. And she powers on...
I was born in 1979 in Bihar and grew up in a small village in Ambedkarnagar, Uttar Pradesh. I grew up in a large joint family with my parents and three siblings. My grandfather ran an organisation in the village that worked on social development projects. My father was a social worker. We had over three acres of land, which we cultivated with the help of farm labourers. Our needs were limited, and we were financially secure.
Even though my father and grandfather were in social work, the atmosphere at home was patriarchal and orthodox. My grandmother and my father's younger brother had the final say on household decisions. My father worked out of town and my mother was denied the right to make decisions for her own children. While both my brothers went out of the village to pursue higher education, my sister and I sat back at home after high school. From my childhood, I noticed that the work done at home by my mother and other women was never acknowledged. Women were financially dependent on their fathers and husbands.
I got married in 2002 and moved to Hyderabad. I wanted to pursue further studies, but my young son kept in poor health. I spent most of my time taking care of him. In 2004, we moved to Lucknow. When I expressed my desire to pursue a college education to my husband, he was supportive and encouraged me. During this period; I joined a non-profit organisation that worked for health awareness. It was my first experience of working in an office and on the field. Although I worked as hard as anyone else, I often felt held back as they weren 't receptive to a woman's ideas. After sometime, I decided to quit and open my own NGO. Even though my family members weren't supportive of my idea, my husband backed me up - as he always has.
Having experienced gender discrimination, I was keen to work on women's empowerment. In 2005, I opened Paras Foundation in my grandfather's name. We chose Faizabad district near Lucknow to work with women farmers and village girls. As I had limited knowledge of the field, I joined a network of civil society organisations in Faizabad. We learnt how to write proposals, manage accounts and conduct audits. It was a great learning experience and helped me further the work I wanted to do through my foundation.
I met many other NGOs and our foundation started working on small projects. During a research study, I found out that there was a high rate of school drop-outs amongst girls in our area. The study revealed that parents of the girls did not trust the school authorities with their safety. We applied for a grant and with the funds received, we opened a school. I personally went door to door convincing parents to enroll their daughters in our school. With our assurances, we build inroads of trust and now have a school with over 200 students. In our school, we take great care to inculcate the values of gender equality in children.
I worked extensively with women farmers to understand their issues. In our area, men often migrate to cities in search of work and women shoulder the dual responsibility of their households and their farms. Women would be involved in all labour intensive aspects of cultivation like weeding which could cause debilitating damage to their health.
We helped women farmers get machines that would help them remove weeds while standing and trained them to operate their equipment. This relieved women of significant drudgery and hardship.
There was no dearth of problems for our farmers. The cost of diesel to extract water through pumps was rising, making access to water a real challenge. Rising input costs made it even harder for women farmers to make ends meet. We created a Farmer Resource Centre to help all farmers (women and men) with farming inputs and advisories for growing crops using water saving techniques. We provided good quality seeds, organic fertilizers, pipes and other equipment for irrigation on nominal rent. This significantly reduced water related costs for farmers while improving their production. I personally train farmers in these sessions . We started with four Gram Panchayats and now work with over 4000 farmers of which 3000 are women.