EWOK - Our Story

When IIT Mandi in Himachal Pradesh first starting moving to Kamand in 2012, there was great interest in the local community to acquire jobs at the institute. Local men secured jobs as gardeners, sweepers, mess workers, lab or work shop assistants, drivers or security guards. Women secured mainly the lower paid jobs – gardening, head load work at the construction sites, and sweeping. Noticing this imbalance, six third year Btech students took up an Integrated Social Technical Project to study women’s education levels in the valley. That study found that most women over the age of thirty had completed only eight years of schooling. Many women under thirty had completed high school and several had taken college degrees in Mandi. This trend towards higher education for girls has continued since. Now more women, and even married women, are allowed to complete high school and college.

When IIT Mandi in Himachal Pradesh first starting moving to Kamand in 2012, there was great interest in the local community to acquire jobs at the institute. Local men secured jobs as gardeners, sweepers, mess workers, lab or work shop assistants, drivers or security guards. Women secured mainly the lower paid jobs – gardening, head load work at the construction sites, and sweeping. Noticing this imbalance, six third year Btech students took up an Integrated Social Technical Project to study women’s education levels in the valley. That study found that most women over the age of thirty had completed only eight years of schooling. Many women under thirty had completed high school and several had taken college degrees in Mandi. This trend towards higher education for girls has continued since. Now more women, and even married women, are allowed to complete high school and college.

Following up on this study, the Women’s Cell at IIT established EWOK in June 2016. In 2017, we hired Urmila from Katindhi village to conduct a survey of the women in the Kamand Valley. She completed an excellent survey of all the women in the valley gathering information on their education, family situation, skills, and aspirations. She, also, provided those of us from outside with personal guidance in understanding the local mindset and condition.

Initially the aim of EWOK was to make information easily available to local women and potential employers and trainers so that local women who sought to enhance their lives through training, education, employment, or entrepreneurship could find the path to achieving their goals. After several years we finished this mainly software project with the dedicated work of a local female intern.

Soon we realised that we wanted a more direct contribution. In 2017,EWOK first introduced mentoring. We held meetings with groups of potential female entrepreneurs and assigned mentors to individual women who wished to start small businesses involved in serving the IIT Mandi community. Businesses mentored included beauty, tailoring, home cooked meals, laundry, and mushroom cultivation.
A few of these businesses are still operating, but overall our success was limited. There were three major hurdles:

  • 1. The local women were not ready to change their daily routines. They were interested in some small income on the side, but their first priority was their families. Those with school age children wanted to be home when the children returned from school, and all wanted to be home at five to prepare the evening meal. As people at IIT are mainly free only after five, this was a major hurdle.
  • 2. Lack of childcare compounded by caste sensitivities.
  • 3. The local understanding of business is totally family centred. Even most merchants in Mandi town are not ready to trust someone outside the family.
  • We also noted hurdles on our side. We were competent consumers, but few of us had the knowledge, training or experience to a tailor or laundress. Also, we had approached from our point of view without researching the women’s wishes and strengths. We saw mainly that a large new community was coming up, and would require many services, and we sought to prepare local women to provide these services. Somehow, we had actually overlooked the fact that all of the local women have a great deal of expertise in agriculture. The mushroom cultivation project was one of our more successful ones.

    We finally realised that many of the women over thirty, in particular, had many skills and great interest in agriculture. Many of the younger women had more education and were, predictably, more interested in government jobs. Government jobs for the men had given a tremendous boost to many of the families in the area, and government jobs remained the main goal for their prestige and security. Opening a shop and providing services like laundering were definitely less prestigious.

    At this point we took a major turn. One important step in becoming more accessible to the local women was that we shifted to a small office in Salgi, the small village near North Campus. This greatly improved our accessibility. Previously we had been operating from a lab in IIT. Many of the local women were reluctant to come into IIT, and the bolder ones were sometimes turned away by over zealous security guards.

    For the older women we guided four women to become horticultural contractors. By the spring of 2020, these women were employing 65 women and men and had a total turnover of 65 lakhs. We also joined with the Medicinal Plants Lab in promoting a variety of projects introducing new agricultural techniques including organic farming and new crops such as rose for rose oil, tulsi for tea and marigolds for pharmaceutical uses. These projects are all going well, and we have won a grant of Rs. 35 lakhs from NABARD to continue this work.

    For the younger women, we learned that they were not getting jobs on campus due to their poor spoken English and their weak computer skills. Few had actually used English, and even women with BCA had not actually used a computer. We introduced courses from NIIT in spoken English and basic computer skills and hired some of the graduates as interns to finish the development of our local resources app. Fifty women have completed the courses. Some of our graduates are still in college, others have secured jobs on projects in IIT.

    In November 2019, we became a registered society. We still have several joint projects with the Medicinal Plants Lab and with Catalyst, the IIT Mandi business incubator, but we can also direct projects, seek grants and accept donations on our own.

    Since EWOK started four years ago there have been various potholes and hairpin bends along the way. Now we have successes and strengths to build on. We hold to our founding vision to help the women in the valley achieve their goals, to listen to them, and to try to refrain from imposing our goals on them.

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