Moved and Motivated by the Women of the World

The chance to meet with women from all walks of life during a recent trip to India inspired me beyond expectations—and continues to on this International Women’s Day.

Agariyas, or salt farmers, in Little Rann of Kutch, India

Madhura Joshi/NRDC

Among the projects that I’ve been the proudest of during my tenure at NRDC have been our efforts with women globally—in working alongside them, empowering them, and amplifying their voices so that they’re heard—to create movements and lasting progress.

Women leaders in the environmental space and women-led movements have been inspiring NRDC’s work for decades, especially on the international stage. This includes the growing force of female environmentalists of Latin America, the fearless and tireless indigenous defenders of the boreal forests in Canada, and the women of India with whom I had the honor of meeting recently.

I was visiting India to represent NRDC at the World Sustainable Development Summit, but what was truly invigorating for me was to see and experience the real results of the hard work that NRDC has been doing in the country for the past 10 years—work that is having a direct impact on women and families.

NRDC President Rhea Suh raking salt in Rann of Kutch

Madhura Joshi/NRDC

Work like our partnership with the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) in the Rann of Kutch in western India, which enables female salt farmers to access loans to purchase solar-powered water pumps that replace their diesel-powered equipment. With this relatively simple replacement of diesel with a renewable energy source, the women spend less on overhead costs, they get much more in return, and they’re not breathing in harmful pollutants that are the by-products of burning diesel. I witnessed how putting clean energy technology into the hands of women is directly improving their lives—at great benefit to the environment, too.

In addition, SEWA provides training for the women so they’re set up to succeed. This makes a huge difference in a system in which a majority of women who work are self-employed and do not receive benefits, salaries, or protections.

The successes of our pilot programs speak for themselves, but I was not prepared to be moved so deeply in seeing the actual impacts of the SEWA program on these women’s lives.

Suh (center) at breakfast with SEWA founder Ela Bhatt (far left), SEWA head Reema Nanavaty (second from left), and others

Michelle Egan/NRDC

I saw the impact in moments like having breakfast with Ela Bhatt, the founder of SEWA and one of the most revered social advocates for women in India, and Reema Nanavaty, the current head of SEWA. During the meal, which Ms. Bhatt and her family had prepared, they told me about how the lives of the female salt farmers in the state of Gujarat have been transformed from impoverishment to empowerment—a world of difference for the low-income workers who build their businesses literally by hand.

I saw it, too, in a visit to the home of a female kite-maker in Ahmedabad—another self-employed woman—who could not stop beaming about the “cool roof” in her two-room dwelling that housed no fewer than 18 people. Our cool roofs program, also in partnership with SEWA, not only had made her home better insulated and more heat resistant but also provided her with energy cost savings that would help fund the education of her children—including her eldest, who is headed to Delhi next year for college.

It's stories like these that stick with me long after I return home. I think about the commonalities we share as women, the will to do right by one’s family as a mother, the unwavering hope and positive vision for their future and their children’s futures; these motivations drive them every day, as they drive me. These women continue to serve as beacons of hope as I start looking ahead, beyond my tenure at NRDC. The empowered women I have met, from all walks and stages of life, in turn empower me to reaffirm my commitment to people and to the environment.

About the Authors

Rhea Suh

Former President

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