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How Bansidhar & Ila Panda Foundation is working on adolescents’ health and empowering women in rural Odisha

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Founded in 2011, the Bansidhar & Ila Panda Foundation (BIPF) aims to implement sustainable and scalable interventions in the areas of healthcare, education, livelihood, and sanitation. BIPF, the social development arm of Indian Metals and Ferro Alloys Limited is structured to partner and collaborate with the Central and State governments as well as local and international organisations to implement programmes and drive results for the marginalised communities of Odisha. Currently, the foundation’s activities span seven districts in Odisha – Cuttack, Rayagada, Keonjhar, Jajpur, Angul, Balasore, and Khorda.
Skilling and training rural youth, helping rural household women in becoming self-reliant, and health & hygiene of adolescent girls are some of the key focus areas of the non profit working in and around 397 villages in Odisha.
Mr. Nilendu Chatterjee, DGM – Social Development at Bansidhar & Ila Panda Foundation opens up to The CSR Journal about their latest and popular projects.

1. Please tell us about your project Kanya Express. When did you start this?

Adolescence is one of the most impactful phases for girls; when taken care of at the right time with the right information and assistance, can result in a productive future. With the objective of bringing significant transformation in the lives of adolescent girls in our project areas, BIPF launched Kanya Express in 2021. Through Kanya Express Initiative, our top priority is creating a congenial learning environment for adolescent girls and empowering them for a healthy and productive future. This innovative adolescent health programme focuses on developing awareness among these girls on various aspects of their well-being.
One of the key strategies we employ is a customised mobile health vehicle that reaches far-flung areas and villages to conduct regular haemoglobin checkups and Body Mass Index (BMI) of young girls. Through these checkups, we not only address adolescent anaemia but also create awareness about nutrition supplementation, personal hygiene practices, reproductive and personal rights, and responsible health-seeking behaviour.
With eleven sessions spread over twenty-four months, we address specific issues related to adolescent health such as life skills, balanced nutrition intake, personal hygiene practices, reproductive health &responsible behaviour apart from intervention for future career development and their rights. BIPF’s efforts are closely aligned with the Millennium Development Goals of Zero Hunger, Good Health & Wellbeing, Quality Education, Gender Equality, and Clean Water & Sanitation.

2. How many girls have benefited through this initiative and in which parts of Odisha till today?

Our project, Kanya Express, has made a significant impact on the lives of adolescent girls, with over 9,977 beneficiaries to date. It has successfully reached out to 34 Gram Panchayats and 158 villages, making a substantial difference in these communities.
Earlier launched in Athagarh and Tang-Choudwar Block of Cuttack district, the project gained tremendous momentum and was subsequently scaled up in June 2022 to include the Sukinda block in Jajpur District. Considering the field-level impact as achieved, we are also in progress to launch Kanya Express at Therubali, Rayagada a tribal-dominated aspirational district, wherein it shall cover 92 villages in 9-gram panchayats.
Health check up of adolescent girls under Project Kanya Express

3. How does Project Unnati operate?

Project Unnati operates as an integrated capacity-building initiative for women in rural and tribal areas, employing the self-help group (SHG) approach for their socio-economic empowerment. The core objective of Unnati is to empower women to participate in the mainstream of development and give them a voice in the decision-making process. The project follows two models of empowerment— economic empowerment & social empowerment
Economic empowerment works through a sustainable livelihood framework with capacity building on market-driven livelihood skills. To make economic empowerment sustainable, we link women with banks and existing government schemes for capacity building and financial linkages at subsidised rates.
In addition to financial and livelihood training, Unnati provides life skills training to women, covering topics such as WASH (Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene), nutrition, and reproductive healthcare. Our programme currently serves six districts in Odisha, namely Keonjhar, Angul, Jajpur, Cuttack, Rayagada, and Khorda.
The main features of Unnati include a three-year capacity-building programme conducted through 151 structured meetings. We also emphasise equipping women with essential life skills such as sustainable farming practices, encouraging non-farm activities, animal husbandry, and fostering preventive and curative healthcare measures.
We strive to enhance women’s participation in Panchayati Raj institutions, ensuring their voices are heard and their perspectives considered. Project Unnati’s efforts have gained recognition as one of the notable cases of corporate support for women’s empowerment, reproductive health, and maternal health, as acknowledged by the UN Foundation & GBC Health.
Through our comprehensive approach, Project Unnati is committed to transforming the lives of women in marginalised communities, enabling them to achieve economic independence, improved well-being, and greater social standing.

4. What was the inspiration to start this project?

The inspiration behind Project Unnati stems from our deep commitment to empowering rural women in marginalised communities. Project Unnati embodies our integrated capacity-building initiative that utilizes the self-help group (SHG) approach in rural and tribal areas. By establishing SHGs and linking them with banks and government departments, we provide financial assistance, training, and support to these women.
BIPF’s purpose was always well defined, we strive to enhance the participation of rural women in economic activities and foster self-reliance. Alongside financial and livelihood training, we place great importance on providing life skills training. Through this initiative, we got a step closer to the vision of the BIPF i.e. ‘To engage, educate and empower the most vulnerable communities in order to drive significant social-economic transformation.’

5. How has the picture changed after implementing Project Unnati?

Since the implementation of project Unnati, there has been a 33% increase in family income among the beneficiaries, a 27% reduction in illness due to improved health-seeking behaviours, and 7% of women have representation in local Panchayati Raj Institutions. These outcomes showcase the positive transformation that can occur when we prioritise and invest in women’s well-being and empowerment. Project Unnati has made significant strides in promoting women’s empowerment, reproductive and maternal health.
Jay Jagannath Self Help Group
One such example is The JayJagganath Group, Self Help Group, comprising ten women from the scheduled tribe community in Block Tangi Choudwar, Cuttack district, which has overcome significant social, geographical, and economic challenges. With unwavering determination and the support of the Bansidhar & Ila Panda Foundation’s Project Unnati, they have embarked on an inspiring journey of empowerment. Starting with modest savings and assistance from the foundation, they entered the phenyl production and marketing business. Today, their brand “Surakhya” offers high-quality phenyl, and their business has not only achieved economic success but also contributed to promoting hygiene in their communities. With plans for further expansion, they are exploring additional business opportunities.

6. Why is financial empowerment of women extremely important especially in rural areas in the present day?

According to the Humanity Welfare Council, 80% of women in India struggle with financial literacy, and around 62% of Indian women do not own bank accounts or have limited access to banking services. The statistic presents a stark picture of the dismal levels of financial literacy and freedom among Indian women. If India must reach the next level of economic growth, women need to play a pivotal part in the same, for which they need to be financially empowered.
When we talk about the rural scenario, the situation there is even more concerning. The financial empowerment of women is an important aspect of this, particularly in rural areas. It plays a key role in promoting the gender equality that rural India demands. This not only enhances their self-esteem and decision-making power but also contributes to overall societal progress.
Furthermore, financial empowerment enables women to break the cycle of poverty and uplift their families and communities. When women have control over their finances, they can invest in education, healthcare, and nutrition for themselves and their children. This leads to improved well-being, reduced poverty rates, and enhanced economic development at the grassroots level.

7. What are the major obstacles in the way of women’s financial empowerment in rural Odisha which you have observed from your experience?

One of the primary challenges is the low literacy rate among women in the region. Based on the NFHS-5, while the male literacy rate in Odisha is 84.6%, the female literacy rate in Odisha is significantly lower at 69.5%, which is even worse in rural area with 66.7% women literacy. This educational disparity limits women’s opportunities for economic growth.
Additionally, the workforce participation rate for females in Odisha is only 27.2%, compared to 56.11% for males. This gender gap in workforce participation further restricts women’s ability to earn a sustainable income and achieve financial independence.
BIPF member in a meeting with village women as part of Project Unnati
In rural Odisha, limited self-employment opportunities and inadequate irrigation facilities hinder agricultural productivity, affecting women’s earning potential and economic empowerment. The lack of infrastructure, education, healthcare, transportation, and markets further restricts women from starting businesses, accessing credit, and participating in income-generating activities. Additionally, High unemployment rates contribute to widespread poverty and social problems.
To address these challenges, there is a need to prioritise skill development training and create employment opportunities for women to establish sustainable livelihoods. Providing greater access to resources and creating an enabling environment for women to start businesses and participate in income-generating activities will play a pivotal role in promoting their economic progress.
Ahana Bhattacharya can be reached at ahana@thecsrjournal.in