Written by Rosalind Tan
Edited by Amra Naidoo & Shana Greene
Riyanka Ganguly embodies a deep, reflective social conscience uncommon amongst most girls her age. A Bengali-Indian who was born in Saudi Arabia and raised in the United States, her cosmopolitan background endowed her early on with a perspective that enabled her to see how privileged she was to have the opportunities had. “Growing up, whenever my family went back to Kolkata, I couldn’t understand how girls on the street who looked like me and spoke the same language as me, could have such a vastly different life from me. From a young age I couldn’t shake off the feeling of how unfair it was that I could sit comfortably contemplating this from my home back in the United States, while they lived a raw deal.”
Understanding the crucial relationship between enterprise, health and empowerment for women in emerging markets, she became interested in the work of Village Volunteers and its initiative Empowering Women Period with founder Shana Greene. Working with a group of women on a crowdfunding campaign in 2014, they were able to fund the equipment and the start-up costs for a pad company in association with Urmi Basu, Director of New Light, and Jaydeep Mandal, a technical partner for recognising the project in the red light district of Kolkata.
Riyanka, currently in her second year of undergraduate study, is a strong advocate and spokesperson. She understands that a virtuous cycle in which women are financially empowered through jobs, and where those jobs themselves align with the vision of empowering women beyond just financial stability. Empowering Women Period sets up women-owned social enterprises to empower vulnerable women who are marginalized to a point that they consider violence against them as “normal. The broader vision is then to also support other vulnerable women and girls by giving them access to menstrual hygiene products and crucial public health information, through allied women-operated enterprises.
Riyanka describes the painful situation of the women, “These vulnerable women trapped in cycles of abuse and rape in the sex work industry. For young girls born to mothers who are sex workers, it becomes an inevitable fate of abuse that starts with the fathers who trap them through fear and intimidation, to brothers who turn into pimps, to lovers and pimps who exploit, to husbands who treat them the same.”
Riyanka further defies those who would turn a blind eye to this cause, “Society stigmatizes these women instead of setting up ways for girls to get help and choose a different path for themselves.”
Empowering Women Period’s mission is to create a powerful circle of empowered women and girls who will then go on to empower other girls to rise above social abuse and social stigma. Empowering Women Period’s Mukti Project has freed (dozens of) women and their children from the cycle of prostitution and abuse. The Mukti Pad Company was set up by New Light and Village Volunteers to empower women to market and manufacture of affordable menstrual hygiene products for impoverished young girls.
The key message they take away is one of liberation: through the use of proper menstrual hygiene products, they enjoy freedom from shame. Most importantly, for them to feel liberated within a strong female community that empowers them and provides them with options for a bright future.
Village Volunteers are a Project Inspire 2016 Semi-Finalist, competing for a place as one of the top 10 Finalists. Support them on their journey and help take a step closer to realizing their goals.