In their 2016 Annual Letter, Bill and Melinda Gates asked the question, “If you could have one superpower, what would it be?” Bill talked about the energy crisis and Melinda talked about the idea of time poverty among women. And their desired superpowers? — More energy, more time. At the end of the Gates letter there is an option to recommend one #superpowerforgood.
With my recent work on gender, this challenge got me thinking: What is that one super power that can empower women, help them realize their potential, solve their problems, address challenges, and break free? I chose creativity.
Women already have superpowers. They just don’t know how to use them. Every now and then, there are stories about women who have achieved remarkable things. From a group of Dalit woman in a Kerela plantation who started the movement for workers’ rights and won, to Selvi Gawda who, as a child bride, escaped from sexual abuse to become the first woman taxi driver and later an entrepreneur, and others like Sampat Rai who started Gulabi Gang. These are all stories of women who seemed to have achieved the impossible. The big question is, how can such random acts of greatness amongst marginalized women be turned into a norm?
From child bride to taxi driver and entrepreneur
The biggest disservice done to these ‘innovation’ stories is giving these women a tag of greatness, making these achievements sound exclusive, rare and therefore, non-replicable. Innovation occurs from the act of creative thinking. And every one of us has the ability to be creative.
Shazia’s (name changed) story vividly demonstrates the power of creative thinking. Violence against domestic helpers (especially women and children) is a common problem in India. This is how a typical domestic helper, Shazia, views the problem: “I am alone. I am helpless. I am at the mercy of my employer.” With this approach she has two options: (1) Accept her fate (2) Leave her current employer and have an uncertain future. “How do I know I will not be beaten in the next employment?” Shazia, remarkably, was a unique woman. She decided to not give in to fate. She challenged the assumption that she was alone and helpless. This led her to realize that there were hundreds of women in her slum in the same position as her. She now had something to work with. She then reversed her problem statement and changed it from “I am at the mercy of my employers” to “I am in control, my employers could be at my mercy.” A bold thought, but how could she make it a reality? Having challenged her basic assumptions and then having reversed her problem statement she was able to look at the problem from a different perspective. She was empowered enough to search for alternatives.
Shazia came up with this brilliant idea: Organize a meeting of all women in her slum who work in her area, Khoda village near Indraputram. In the discussion, she recommended that as a team they were in total control of the ‘domestic labor’ of Indrapuram. They felt empowered. Now the question was how do they get in control of violence. This was the decision taken: If any woman from that slum is beaten in any house where they worked, then this team will ensure that that particular house will never get any ‘domestic helper’ to work for them again. It was plan that changed the life of hundreds of women of that slum. It was an equitable solution bringing the employers and employees on an even keel.
What Shazia did was that she, unwittingly, used two simple creativity tools- Post Assumption (challenge existing assumption to develop new concepts) and Problem Reversal (change the direction of viewing the problem by reversing the problem statement). Shazia’s solution seems so simple and obvious in retrospect.
One of the major reasons for feeling un-empowered is the feeling that we have no ‘choice’. At its core, creativity is the ability to generate ideas and thereby choices. Empowerment is the ability to exercise more choices. With increased choices people feel they can achieve what they want and hence they automatically become motivated to take initiative.
Examples of women who used creative solutions to difficult problems are many. In Barsana, women devised a creative way, Lathimar Holi, to discourage men from getting drunk on Holi. Lajjat Papad, an initiative started by rural women with a loan of Rs. 80 and has now become a Rs. 3.1 million brand. Padmashre awardee, Kalpana Saroj, a Dalit by birth, started working in a garment factory and eventually joined the league of successful Indian women entrepreneurs.
These are not stories of a clever women or for that matter of ‘great’ women. These are stories of women who had courage to think ‘out-of-the-box1. What each one did was bring a new perspective and new dimension to the problem at hand and found an innovative solution. Creativity allowed these women to turn a lost cause into a winning solution. Creativity empowered them.
Fortunately, creativity and innovation can be taught, and possibly taught faster and more economically than most income genration skills. In Bangladesh, we taught women to generate creative ideas (innovations) to improve their lives in 1 day workshops. That’s 2 weeks less than the time required to teach basic stitching skills. Learning and teaching creativity allows users to approach social issues with a human rights perspective which is based on the fundamental principle that people should be empowered to help themselves and improve their own socio-economic condition. It’s time women harness their creative superpower and reach their potential.
1. The ‘box’ is the limit placed on our imagination by our experiences, our beliefs and our knowledge.