Auroville India Sustainable Development

Sustainable Development: Empowering Women through Social Enterprise

“You can tell the condition of a nation by looking at the status of its Women.” Jawaharlal Nehru, Leader of India’s Independence movement, and India’s first Prime Minister. [1]

Women in India and around the world are moving from the fields to the work place in order to seek greater financial opportunities.  From the individual research and review of available literature in regards to gender equality and women’s empowerment, women can only advance as much as their government and policies will allow them, but there have been ways to overcome this disparity through the implementation of social enterprises. It is important to be aware of the traditional concerns that face women and how they are being addressed socially. There is much commentary and review on the importance of rural women’s economic empowerment, specifically through land rights and gender equity. However, and more importantly rural women should not be limited to working in agriculture or owning land. They should have the right to ask for work that is enjoyable and meaningful work. Rural women should not be defined by goals or counted as a statistic, but rather they should be supported by realistic objectives capable of setting forth an era of productivity and change in their own lives and in their communities. It is important that rural women have access to the professional training, education and equal opportunities in order to make and keep sustainable livelihoods for themselves and their families. While government policies and cultural boundaries create barriers and disadvantages for rural women, it is also important to keep in mind that certain changes to status quo could have equally detrimental effects such as reversing any form of forward momentum that has already started for women.

The paper begins by providing information on social enterprises and the challenges that are faced by rural women in India within their communities. Afterwards, the research methodology is presented followed by a commentary of scholars in the field.  Next, the paper will introduce a case study conducted at a social enterprise, Naturellement, in Auroville, South India. Following, the findings identifying the ways that a social enterprise can contribute to sustainable livelihoods of rural women are described. The paper comments on whether a social enterprise can contribute positively to the United Nation’s Sustainable Development goals. Finally, the paper concludes with a personal reflection of sustainable development based on time spent in the field.

Social enterprises are businesses that practice financial sustainability by using their profits from good and services to invest in social mobilization. Social enterprises: create income for people who live in poverty; they are self-sustainable and can re-invest in themselves; their models can be replicated in other communities to create a lasting impact.[2] Social enterprises are important in creating sustainable healthy communities at a government and local level. In situations where governments and agency’s aim to build and sustain economic vitality, social enterprises are a viable able option for brining together business and social action, and combing the need of communities and the state.[3] In addressing some of the prevailing issues in the discourse of development, I have created a project using the framework of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals to examine the ways in which a social enterprise is a positive contribution to the field of development.[4][i]  The purpose of this study was to gain a deeper understanding of Sustainable Development, practices that contribute to sustaining the quality of life and the earth’s natural resources for future generations. This was achieved by using a participatory approach through observation. A qualitative case study methodology was employed to observe the structure of a social enterprise, an organization dedicated to tackling social concerns for the be and to examine how rural women are positively impacted through employment. The study took place at Naturellement, a social enterprise located in the international township of Auroville, South India. Data was collected over a period of three weeks from workplace observation, interviews with the participants, concept notes and statistics from the World Bank. This study will examine how and in what ways rural women are empowered through employment at a social enterprise and whether or not a social enterprise will be the strongest medium for rural women to gain access to meaningful employment? In this paper, I will illustrate that India is indeed capable of benefiting from social enterprises, especially its rural women who are in need of it the most.

A review of the literature relevant to rural women’s empowerment found that women are key to achieving higher economic productivity worldwide.[5] However, there is not much literature that provides an insight into social enterprise for rural women and the effect these social enterprises might have. The rural society research team at the Scottish Agricultural College in Edinburg, Scottland asserts that rural social enterprise research is underdeveloped; however, rural communities might be able to benefit from remote rural social enterprise through what they have called ‘adaptive capacity’.[6]  The researchers recognize that limited understanding of how a rural social enterprise functions, will weaken a community. While many governments, and even the United Nations, recognize that there is a need for development, there have been no indicators of policy initiatives. Research in this field is limited by several factors – most notably, the fact that many researchers tend to have a limited perspective on the field because it is not on the front-page headlines of how to aid underdeveloped countries. It is recognized by several key players in Scottland that the bottom up approach is of benefit to social enterprises in rural areas.[7] This can also be said for the rural communities of India. The hurdles to achieving economic and social equality for rural women are heavily linked to the ties of land ownership and agricultural production. It is plausible to question whether or not a social enterprise can contribute to creating sustainable rural communities.[8]

The promoters and barriers for a rural social enterprise identified by Scottlands research team cannot be compared to that of India due to cultural and social boundaries and pre-existing norms that exist in each region. However, what can be learned from looking at the case study of the aforementioned scholars is that social enterprises have been proven particularly effective regardless of the challenges presented through geographical positioning of rural areas, lack of a skilled workforce, and access to a large market.[9] That said, this information does not stop dedicated men or women from trying to pursue the betterment of humanity in the various regions. The study in Scottland fails to recognize what defines a rural environment; the meaning of rural in the case of Scottland can be different from rural in India. Walking down the streets of villages located just outside of Auroville, India, one will see families living in huts made of bamboo and coconut straw. Cows will be seen reposing in the middle of street traffic or eating from the trash on the side of the roads. Children only hope for clean water to drink as the ponds and rivers are filled with algae and trash. The women walk up and down the street selling crafts made from scrap material. Social enterprises in India have not had a chance to take their course, so research from previous scholars on social enterprises in other countries should be applied to the carte blanche in India.

This study is limited by the following several factors. Time and duration spent in the field collecting data; access to the worker; and my own bias. In addition there is no way to control for accuracy and honesty of information provided in the interview of the owner of Naturellement, who also served as a translator, and her assumptions or agenda will influence the quality of information gathered. The findings made in this study are from a specific location and cannot therefore generalize to all social enterprises. The language barrier with the workers and their understanding of English had a major effect on the ability to communicate, thus limiting the number of interviews I was able to conduct. The majority of the workers only spoke Tamil, so I relied upon the owner and a younger worker to collect my interview data.

The research design for this study is an observation design. The data was collected through semi-structured interviews with the participant. The interviews were composed of open-ended questions projected towards empowering the rural women who are working in the company. All interviews were tape-recorded and documented in a Microsoft Word file. Three separate interviews were conducted with the help of the owner, and two interviews were conducted with the help of the youngest worker. The interviewees were informed and aware of the information being collected and gave their verbal consent for use. The overall data collected from the case study conducted at Naturellement proved that a social enterprise is beneficial in a rural setting when managed under high ethical standards and when the mission of serving others come first. Naturellements enterprise met seven of the seventeen sustainable development goals, adding importance to the contributions that a social enterprise does make to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Some of the issues facing rural women, such as gender inequality and access to technical labor, create a barrier of advancement for women in their societies. According to Women’s Watch the efforts made by rural women to be a productive force of labor is a key contribution that helps sustains their communities:

Rural women play a key role in supporting their households and communities in achieving food and nutrition security, generating income, and improving rural livelihoods and overall well-being. They contribute to agriculture and rural enterprises and fuel local and global economies.[10]

The study conducted on the women at Naturellement in Auroville, South India reveals that rural women are benefiting from their companies commitment to Social Responsibility. From data collected in qualitative analysis, only 30 women are hired at the enterprise. The United Nation Millennium Development goals recognize the need to improve the quality of life of all people globally, specifically with focus directed to regions that are developing. The sustainable development goals were implemented to further assist the mission of targeting the goals that were missed in the previous years. These goals aim to end poverty, protect the planet an ensure prosperity for all and it calls for all Nations to participate, from the governments, the private sector, civil society and ordinary people.[11]

Naturellement has made positive contributions to the agenda of Sustainable Development. It can be seen through the ways women’s lives are transformed by the practices of a social enterprise. It is important to recognize that while all the goals were not met for the Sustainable Development agenda, a majority were significantly recognized and produced satisfying outcomes.

Poverty does not exist among the women because they are able to have access to decent work. Naturellement hires women who are in desperate need of work, specifically the women who are at the lowest of the cast system in India. This enables them to have an income to take care of themselves and their families. They are also able to work their way up to better living conditions and create sustainable future for generations to come.

Zero Hunger and Good Health and Well-being existed in the enterprise at Naturellement. A “food scheme” program was created by the owner, Martina Ljungquist, that the employees to receive a complimentary lunch. This was due to the owner noticing the poor eating habits practiced by the women, which were directly influenced by the food price inflation in India. The women were prone to diabetes due to eating excessive amounts of white rice. In return, the food scheme allowed the women to have diets enriched with protein, vegetables, fish, and meat. This method decreased malnutrition and hunger so that the women could maintain a healthier life style.

Quality education provides a fair chance to become advanced fine culinary arts and knowledgeable in professional food service and production. The women benefited from educational activities such as English classes, professional training with computers, and training in professional business practices and customer relations by gaining confidence to interact with consumers from around the world. The women also received workshops and training on personal hygiene and cleanliness from local organizations such as Eco-Femme, a women’s empowerment group challenging a major taboo surrounding the stigma of having menstruation; this taboo causes women to feel impure and shameful in the Indian culture. These workshops enhanced open discussions of women’s health and menstruation in safe and nurturing environment. Women also benefited from having parenting classes by gaining useful skills needed to take care of their children while in the womb until birth.

Gender Equality paves the way to circumvent pre-existing boundaries. Not only does Naturellement empower women through meaningful employment, it allows women to defy the challenges imposed upon them by their society. India is a male dominated society where women are subordinate to men. It is definitely seen in the rural areas of India, though there are claims that the country is moving away from this type of culture. The India constitution affirms the right for women to be treated equally; however, where patriarchal traditions are dominant, there is limited effect for legal protection.[12] Naturellement overcomes this barrier by providing work to only women.

Clean water and Sanitation are important for daily operations and hygiene among the workers. Naturellement cares about its environment and ensures top quality conditions in its work place. Purified and filtered water are provided to customers and the women who work there. Given that the area has poor sanitation and irrigation, Naturellement ensures that its workers and community can have access to pure water. Pure and filtered water may not reach all of India, but Naturellement does its part as a social enterprise to contribute to a better quality of life for an area that lacks that means to have a proper irrigation system.

Access to decent work and economic growth enables a community to stay alive and vibrant. Naturellements enterprise provides women with meaningful employment, thus allowing them to earn an income; furthermore, the work that Naturellement provides to the rural women goes far beyond having just a job. Naturellement provides a family that prides itself on taking care of each other. In an interview with Martina Ljungquist, the owner, affirms her belief in the quality work given to the women. “One of the fundamental parts of empowerment is that they are getting qualified and skilled. I always say they can’t do without me, but I can’t do without them. The company’s biggest asset is not this building, it is its trained workers, it is its trained dedicated workers. That means that I could not do this without working on the empowerment of the women.” For Martina giving decent work empowers the women and when the women are empowered they are motivated to work and to the enterprise.

The case study conducted at Naturellement, maintains that a social enterprise is a positive contribution to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. When workers demographics were collected, the researcher found that the participants who were interviewed worked for the company an average of 6 or more years. The youngest participant interviewed began at the age of 16 years old and is currently 22 years old. Of the workers observed and interviewed all were of Tamil decent with dark complexion. When discussing the process of hiring women, it was found that most of the women were not educated, illiterate and came from the lowest cast. It was also discovered that many of the women had poor eating habits, which influenced an increase in diabetes. Overall women were happy with their employment because they could be empowered by feeling like equals in their society.

When I think of Sustainable Development I think of what can be maintained and what can be improved. With regards to rural women, is it possible to have a productive and stable life while seeking social mobility? Social enterprises play a significant role in creating this structure, but I also believe that it takes more than a social enterprise to achieve this goal. The enterprise I observed is just a small glimpse of what could be done if this type of empowerment turned into a global movement for rural women. Instead of strictly looking at empowering women in the agriculture industry of rural areas, jobs should be created for them instead of imagined for them. There is fear of letting rural women have this much control in such a patriarchal society; however, when women are economically and socially empowered they become a vital ingredient for positive change. This mindset has made Naturellement not only a company, but also a thriving community where women can fulfill their potential.

There are many highly motivated individuals who are willing to take up the call to help the less fortunate who are in need, but when funding becomes an issue, supporting a social cause equally becomes and issue. NGO’s and private sector businesses are engaged in several crowd funding events and hard negotiations in order to secure solid contracts and financial support for projects. However, in parts of India where women are chastised and encounter the hardships of a dominant patriarchal system, a high ruling cast society, cultural traditions arranged marriages and dowries, being born into such systems leave women feeling hopeless about their future and chances of social mobility.

Organizations are becoming increasingly aware of the fact that women in rural areas lack support or guidance in social mobility. New ‘Young Women Social Entrepreneurship Development Programme’ in India is focused on helping women become experts in their field, by helping them identify their skills and offering them training.[13] There is strong belief that when women are included in the labor force they become the backbone support of India’s economy. Meanwhile, new economic reforms in India over the pasts two decades have caused India to sustain and gradually increase its economy. [14] On the contrary, additional reports from the International Labor Organization, indicates a significant decline of 35% to 27% in the labor force participation rate of female in India from 1990-2015.[15] This indication reveals that the reforms need to include the creation of jobs for more women, so that they can be equally represented in India’s labor force. India’s economic growth is not directly impacted by women’s lack of contribution to the field, signifying that women’s equal inclusion could be the key to sustaining a steady economic growth for the country. According to World Bank Country Director in India, “There are good reasons for confidence in India’s near-term prospects. To lay the foundation for sustainable growth and accelerate job creation, implementing the government’s reform program is key. While progress is visible in several areas, including improvements in the ease of doing business, some key reforms, most notably the implementation of the Goods and Service Tax (GST) can be a potential game changer for India.”[16] The best confidence a country can have is investing in the creation of meaningful employment. The future of a country is built upon its economy; however, its skilled and trained workforce is the driving force that keeps the economy alive.

While there are plans for India to create more jobs, its economic policies do not account for the betterment of the all livelihoods. What does this say for the portion of the population who currently lives below the poverty line or, more importantly, those living in nearly extreme poverty from the rural areas scattered through out India. One of the major advancements made by India’s government is the “greater devolution” of spending power, which gives states more authority and control over how funds are spent, in order to better reflect local preferences. Though states are given more spending freedom, a negligible percentage is invested into building up India’s impoverished population. The GDP is expected to have a steady increase; however, there still remains an imbalance between the richest and the poorest in India. The state is funded by the devolution of tax revenues, which increases 0.5 percent of GDP.[17] The State has the ability to invest in building social enterprises through out India, allowing for more jobs to be created while meeting the needs of the rural poor. Moreover, while it seems that India is confident in its economic future, a fundamental problem that strikes developing countries is tax fraud. According to the NGO Global Financial Integrity, Developing countries lose nearly $1 trillion a year to illicit financial flows.[18] India is listed as one of five countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) whose government lacks contributions to the Sustainable Development Goals.[19] Senior fellow and deputy director for the Global Economy and Development program at the Brookings Institute, Homi Kharas, affirms that developing countries provide the vast bulk of resources for development through tax revenues and private investment.[20] With the exception of China and India, Kharas indicated that developing countries mobilized $2.8 trillion in developing financing.[21]  If economic growth cannot support the most marginalized regions of India, what is there to say about the underlying problems that still continue to exist in the country? India needs to invest more interest in the development of its country as a whole.

Maintaining a healthy evaluation of a countries economic growth is just as vital as measuring the economic and social growth of its people. Governments should study the trends of the “goods” that are being produced and that are not being produced by providing opportunities for rural women to engage in equal employment, despite gender differences and cultural disparities. This study should also measure and define what is working and what is not working, taking into consideration the improvements that can be made to produce not only jobs but also a better quality of life. The economic growth along with many of factors can promote the creation of social enterprises that will in turn benefit the country in the long run. Identifying the social and economic policies that will support a form of emancipation that does not limit itself to feeding into the needs and concerns of the upper socio-economic class or big businesses, will allow even more issues and concerns to be addressed such as health, education, transportation and food security. By observing the study of a social enterprise in rural India, it is evident that social enterprises will not solve every problem that a rural society faces, but it will provide a foundation for the promotion of gender equity and social mobilization.

While social enterprises create avenues for rural communities and rural women around the world to become economically empowered, there is still a long road for social justice and change to take place in countries where political and social ties to power confine women to the bottom of the social latter in their societies.  The example of Naturellement was able to demonstrate that a social enterprise, being guided with ethical principles for the well being of others, will impact lives on many levels. Other developing communities around the world can benefit from the practices in a social enterprise. This concept does not necessarily have to target rural women, but perhaps other marginalized groups in need of support. Quality of life is for everyone and should be accessible to everyone. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals leads the way for social change. It calls for each and every one of us to reach out our hand and offer love and charity.

The time I spent in Auroville, South India also deepened my understanding, both of myself and the field of development. There were things I learned that reinforced what I already knew, but there were also unsettling truths that I was forced to come face to face with: that even what I perceived as my enlightened approach to development revealed itself to be patronizing and not true. It confirmed my belief about poverty and there is not a single definition that can summarize its existence. It confirmed that the years of planning and goal setting still leaves the poorest people in the world left to fend for themselves. It also challenged some of my assumptions about knowing what’s best for a society that has little to no resources to sustain themselves. Confronting my own biases has led me to believe that there is not one solution to permanently fix a problem. We have to rethink, reform and adapt. It is no longer enough to look at how to end a problem for good, because for development the problem is a continuous cycle.

End Notes

[1] ” Women’s Situation in India.” Saarthak. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Feb. 2016.                                                                                                                    [2] “Defining Social Enterprise.” NESsT. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Feb. 2016.>.
[3] Steinerowski, Arthur A. “Can Social enterprise contribute to creating sustainable rural communities? – Using the lens of structuration theory to analyze the emergence of rural social enterprise. Rural Society Research Team. Scottish Agricultural College. Edinburg, Scottland. N.d. Web. 1 Feb. 2016.
[4] “Sustainable Development Goals – United Nations.” UN News Center. UN, n.d. Web. 10 Feb. 2016.>.
[5] “Rural Women.” UN Women. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Jan. 2016.
[6] Steinerowski, Arthur A. “Can Social enterprise contribute to creating sustainable rural communities? – Using the lens of structuration theory to analyze the emergence of rural social enterprise. Rural Society Research Team. Scottish Agricultural College. Edinburg, Scottland. N.d. Web. 1 Feb. 2016.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[10] “UN Womenwatch: Rural Women – Facts & Figures: Rural Women and the Millennium Development Goals.” UN News Center. UN, n.d. Web. 27 Jan. 2016. <>.
[11] “Sustainable Development Goals – United Nations.” UN News Center. UN, n.d. Web. 10 Feb. 2016.                                                                                    [12] “Women’s Situation in India.” Saarthak. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Feb.                  2016.                                                                                                      [13] “Empowering Women Social Entrepreneurs in India.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 05 Nov. 2013. Web. 19 Jan. 2016.
[14] “Labor Force Participation Rate, Female (% of Female Population Ages 15+) (modeled ILO Estimate).”Data. The World Bank. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Jan. 2016.
[15] Ibid.
[16] “India’s Economic Growth Picks Up, but Uncertainty over Its Momentum Remains.” World Bank. N.p., 29 Oct. 2015. Web. 30 Jan. 2016.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Renwick, Danielle. Sustainable Development Goals: How will SDG’s be financed? Council on Foreign Relations. 28 September 2015. Web. 13 February 2016.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Ibid.

[i] 17 The Global Goals for Sustainable Development to be completed over 15 years – 1) No Poverty 2) No Hunger 3) Good Health 4) Quality Education 5) Gender Equality 6) Clean Water and Sanitation 7) Renewable Energy 8) Good Jobs and Economic Growth 9) Innovation and Infrastructure 10) Reduced Inequalities 11) Sustainable Cities and Communities 12) Responsible Consumption 13) Climate Action 14) Life Below Water 15) Life on Land 16) Peace and Justice 17) Partnerships for the Goals



“Defining Social Enterprise.” NESsT. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Feb. 2016.


“Empowering Women Social Entrepreneurs in India.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 05 Nov. 2013. Web. 19 Jan. 2016. <>


“India’s Economic Growth Picks Up, but Uncertainty over Its Momentum Remains.” World Bank. N.p., 29 Oct. 2015. Web. 30 Jan. 2016.


“Labor Force Participation Rate, Female (% of Female Population Ages 15+) (modeled ILO Estimate).”Data. The World Bank. Web. 13 Jan. 2016.


Renwick, Danielle. Sustainable Development Goals: How will SDG’s be financed? Council on Foreign Relations. 28 Sept. 2015. Web. 13 February 2016.


“Rural Women.” UN Women. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Jan. 2016.


Steinerowski, Arthur A. “Can Social enterprise contribute to creating sustainable rural communities? – Using the lens of structuration theory to analyze the emergence of rural social enterprise. Rural Society Research Team. Scottish Agricultural College. Edinburg, Scottland. N.d. Web. 1 Feb. 2016.


“Sustainable Development Goals – United Nations.” UN News Center. UN, n.d. Web. 10 Feb. 2016.


“UN Womenwatch: Rural Women – Facts & Figures: Rural Women and the Millennium Development Goals.” UN News Center. UN, n.d. Web. 27 Jan. 2016.


” Women’s Situation in India.” Saarthak. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Feb. 2016.




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