Women’s Empowerment and its Psychological Repercussions: The Less-talked-about Narrative

Saranmoyee Kar . November 10, 2021

Opening up avenues of change and enhanced economic stability and encouraging village women to take on leadership roles in the community is transformative and satisfying…however, this brings with it an increased burden of responsibilities for them as well as an increase in the psychological abuse they face in their families: Does PRADAN have the capability to hold or address this?


A woman has always been perceived as a dependent, and is often seen as somebody’s daughter, somebody’s wife, somebody’s mother, etc. Apparently, besides being the ‘somebody’, she has no identity of her own. This perception has no geographical boundaries—it shows up in urban as well as rural areas, in different parts of this country as well as different corners of this world. Although I have called it ‘perception’, the problem lies in the fact that it is so normalized that it has become a reality.

Our Constitution guarantees equality of status and opportunity for all its citizens; however, women have to struggle daily for their share of equality; and those who try are belittled and labelled. These labels reflect the gender-based differences that guide thought about what a man is supposed to do and what a woman is supposed to do. This is quite deep-rooted in our society, and reminds women that whereas they can master certain soft skills, they lack basic life skills, one of them being to be able to sustain themselves.

Theoretically, as well as socially, an oppressed individual must raise their voice in order to bring about shifts and change in thinking. Women, who push their boundaries, strive for change in their lives and fight for their rights. This fight may sound very revolutionary and motivating; in reality, however, it takes a toll on the women, both physically and psychologically, because they swim against the tide, facing hurdles (both verbal and physical) from their immediate family and society. Physical pain heals with time; psychological wounding manifests in other forms. Let us look at the lives of two women.

Women, who push their boundaries, strive for change in their lives and fight for their rights. This fight may sound very revolutionary and motivating; in reality, however, it takes a toll on the women, both physically and psychologically, because they swim against the tide.

Breaking the Ice

S umitra Mahata and Barnali Mahata are well-known names among the women’s collectives of Haludkanali gram panchayat, Bankura district, West Bengal. They have been participating in and leading many initiatives related to strengthening women’s collectives and enhancing livelihoods. Sumitra grew up in a poor family, studied till Class 10 and got married at 16. She struggled to fit into the new family and was asked how she would contribute monetarily to the family, to mitigate their financial crisis. Her husband was an addict; this impacted her physically and emotionally. From the very early days of her marriage, she was shown little respect, crippling her self-confidence.

Barnali, on the other hand, came from a better-off family. Her father was a teacher and she had completed her graduation. Later, she married against the wishes of her family. After her marriage, the equation between her husband and her changed. “I witnessed my husband change from someone I knew to an unknown person,” said Barnali. Financially, her household was doing well because her husband worked in the panchayat and her father in-law received a pension as a retired government employee. Yet, she was not free. Her decisions were not her decisions; she followed orders and had no independence.

Although Sumitra and Barnali came from different economic backgrounds, socially and personally they were in a very similar confluence in their life. Sumitra was not accepted by her in-laws; she faced violence and abuse whereas Barnali carried the taboo of a woman who had married against the wishes of her parents and had broken societal norms. She was considered a bad influence and was socially isolated. Barnali also gave birth to her first child, a girl, after many medical complications. She was medically advised not to conceive again because it would be life-threatening. This became another point of disapproval and pressure.

I met Sumitra and Barnali in 2016 at a village organization (VO) meeting, which oriented women on PRADAN’s activities, the importance of collectivizing and the potential that women can unleash by staying together. Both Barnali and Sumitra seemed interested from the very first instance; they seemed to understand the importance of being in a collective. The first responsibility that they took up voluntarily was to strengthen the VO, regularize meetings and follow an agenda for the meetings with all the SHG representatives. Gradually, the two women became the natural choice as VO leaders. Their influence and commitment helped the VO be categorized as Grade ‘A’ VO in the entire gram panchayat.

The SHG’s focus on savings and credit started to gain pace when the women engaged in livelihood activities. Both Barnali and Sumitra’s engagements were acknowledged by the women members as well as by the block National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM) team. Soon Sumitra was elected to the Gram Panchayat-level Federation (GPLF) board and Barnali got into the first-ever Community Managed Sustainable Agriculture (CMSA) team.

The Immersion

A fter six years of working with the collectives, Sumitra said, “If I had not met didi in the VO meeting of 2016, my life would have taken a different turn because I had given up on life and thought that ending it was better than going through the continuous insults. That VO meeting initiated a new chapter in my life, which the people are now witnessing…”

Barnali is now an Agriculture Entrepreneur (AE) and initiates the business of agricultural inputs for women collectives, in collaboration with the Farmers’ Producer Company. Sumitra, besides being a Board member of GPLF, continues to be an agricultural trainer and has established her identity as an entrepreneurial farmer in the area. She holds demonstrations to teach other women.

Clearly, their work gave them an escape; it helped them to listen to the other women, uniting them and empathizing with them. They made themselves available to the collectives from early morning to late evening, sometimes even at night.

Both, Barnali and Sumitra contribute a significant amount of money to their families. According to Barnali, “Today, I am not known as anybody’s wife, mother or daughter; rather, people know me as Barnali di, as someone who can advise farmers regarding agriculture. Today, I am self- reliant!”

However, with time, Barnali and Sumitra faced a different challenge altogether. The daily hustle they faced was quite exhausting. At home, they put in extra effort to satisfy their family while setting an example of how women can make a place for themselves if they have the will.

When asked about her frail health, Sumitra said, “Didi, I get up at 4 in the morning to complete all the household chores, I also complete the cooking, then get ready for work. In the rush, I barely get time to eat. During the day, I remain so immersed in the collectives that I forget to eat; and when I get back home, and hear all the spiteful things said about me, I lose my hunger and go to sleep on an empty stomach.”

The Truth

B arnali and Sumitra had been subjected to violence, psychological and physical, before they engaged in working with the collectives. Why did the abuse continue then? They were doing nothing that was socially unacceptable or unethical. Once they began to be recognized, the degree of violence increased. Abuse is considered very normal part of a household or rather it is normalized because abuser may feel this need to control their partner, stemming out of low self-esteem because they are less educated, and out of jealousy, anger or other strong emotions, (Goldsmith, T.D, 2016). Compared to men, women face such a situation more often. A five-country study in Asia arrived at the same conclusion. indicating that gender norms strongly influence the extent to which women experience empowerment (Oppenheim Mason and Smith, 2003).

“Girls are to learn household chores and are married at puberty. Women are supposed to stay inside the house and take care of the household chores. If a woman goes out and roams about, it is bound to create problems in the family.” This is what a few men in the community shared at a hamlet-level meeting on livelihoods planning. In fact, wherever the men folk met, they made it a point to sow the seeds of doubt in the minds of the husbands, whose wives took up active roles in the collectives.

This became obvious when Sumitra attended a meeting or training. In her professional work, Sumitra was required to interact with various officials and farmers, middlemen for marketing, block officials, etc. At home, her husband would threaten her saying he would abandon her and send to her maternal home. She was beaten up in front of her sons just because he doubted her.

Just when Barnali began realizing her dreams, be it social acknowledgement, economic independence or acquiring knowledge and skills, she conceived again despite the doctor advising against it and also against her will. The family wanted a boy and the pregnancy totally disrupted her pace of work. She went into premature labour and lost her child within two days. Barnali became so emotionally disturbed that she decided to leave her husband’s home, taking her elder daughter with her. She did not know where to go and what to do. There was no one who she could trust or lean on.

Corroboration of the Truth

V ictims of psychological abuse often experience depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), suicidal ideation, low self-esteem, and difficulty trusting others. Subtle psychological abuse is more harmful than either overt psychological abuse or direct aggression (O’Leary, K. D. & Mairuo, R. D., 2005). The number states that 48.5 per cent of women have experienced at least one psychological aggressive behaviour by an intimate partner (Breiding, M. J., Chen, J. & Black, M. C., 2014). Four out of ten women have experienced at least one form of coercive control by their intimate partner in a life time (Ibid); 17.9% of women have experienced a situation wherein an intimate partner restricted them from meeting family and friends (Ibid); 18.7% of the women have experienced threats of physical harm by an intimate partner (lbid); 95% of the men who physically abuse their intimate partners also physiologically abuse them (Henning, K., & Klesges, L.M., 2003); women who earn 65% or more of the household income are more likely to be psychologically abused than women who earn less than 65% of the household (Kaukinen, C., 2004).

Barnali and Sumitra are still chasing their aspirations; in this process, however, they are wearing themselves out and are exhausted with setting examples for others. They often share, “I can’t do it anymore didi, my body is giving up.” They feel constant physical and mental fatigue doing all the activities they used to enjoy once. There have been instances when they have wanted to withdraw socially; they have doubted their ability in spite of knowing their capabilities; this was not when they began five years ago.

Studies show that psychological distress is the largest independent contributor to the risk of suicidal behaviour in low- and middle-income countries as it is in high-income countries (A. Pillai, T. Andrews, and V. Patel, 2009). Stress and the experience of physical or psychological abuse may manifest as disorders such as depression, anxiety, or PTSD. Findings have revealed that women residents in rural areas were more likely to experience psychological distress (R. Jina, R. Jewkes, S. Hoffman, K. L. Dunkle, M. Nduna, and N. J. Shai, 2012).


“Didi, the reason that women like us are able to step outside our houses is that all of you are working in the village. If you had not come here, we would have been living in the confines of our homes. Seeing me, other women are encouraged to follow my example by stepping out of their homes. PRADAN has helped me find an identity of my own; people know me by my name…it means a lot to me,” shared a woman, inspired by Barnali and Sumitra; she is now an agricultural trainer of the area.

This statement bestows a lot of responsibility on us, the responsibility of not only showing them the path of financial viability but also helping them to have a life of physical and mental well- being.

Women had a different way of looking at life before PRADAN entered the village. PRADAN gave them a completely new perspective of looking at their existence and encouraged them to question the system rather than accept the situation as is. However, there is a cost for those who dare to question. A majority of the women in leadership or cadre-based positions in PRADAN’s work area have paid this cost either to their families or to society. In the process of this reflection, realization and acceptance, they are conflicted within as well as outside; however, the real struggle starts once a woman takes the first step to prove that she matters. Some people call it an individual’s choice of change; some say she is making use of the opportunity. PRADAN recognizes the fighter in the women, who rise above all the abuses and atrocities they face and motivate others. Nevertheless, PRADAN is yet to address the psychological wounds such women carry.

There is a cost for those who dare to question. A majority of the women in leadership or cadre-based positions in PRADAN’s work area have paid this cost either to their families or to society. In the process of this reflection, realization and acceptance, they are conflicted within as well as outside; however, the real struggle starts once a woman takes the first step to prove that she matters.

We call ourselves professionals because we specialize in doing a certain kind of work for which we have some knowledge and skills. Attending to the psychological distress of a person is not one of these. As a fraternity, we need to find a sustainable way to address this. We have been successful in triggering change; yet, somehow, we have turned a blind eye to the collateral damage caused in the process. That psychosocial empowerment and mental health will enhance the contribution of rural women is a given, egging them on to even greater contributions to eradicate poverty. Women in poor areas suffer from high levels of psychological distress and depression, and are, unfortunately, less likely to receive help (Commission on the Status of Women, 56th session, 2012).

Women have to struggle daily for their share of equality, and those who try are belittled and labelled

Women have to struggle daily for their share of equality, and those who try are belittled and labelled.

According to the Commission on the Status of Women, UN, Economic and Social Council there is an urgent need to provide human resources and facilities to promote mental health and psychosocial well-being by:

  • Training local women as mental health resources to recognize mental health problems and provide service or referrals, using the technology available such as online communication.
  • Developing and evaluating a programme that deploys trained psychologists working with peer coaches to provide services and trainings.

PRADAN has always held the perspective of holistic development following a gendered lens. At this point, if we do not give psychological well-being a thought, probably we will be missing a very critical aspect of holistic development, and the gap will widen every day, pushing women, especially the flag bearers of change, to the edge. They must not pay for dreaming of a better future and having an individual identity.

Is PRADAN, as an organization, inclined and capable of actually addressing the overall well- being of these fighters (who we call ‘change-makers’) and many such women who will walk this path? The willingness comes first, followed by building capacity and implementing the intention.


  1. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25525517/
  2. https://assets.speakcdn.com/assets/2497/domestic_violence_and_psychological_abuse_ncadv.pdf
  3. https://psychologycoalitionun.org/activities/statements/55-psychological-perspectives-empowering-rural-women-girls.html
  4. https://psychcentral.com/lib/what-causes-domestic-violence
  5. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/283877

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