Rio Tinto Puts Indian Women in the Driver’s Seat – by Joe Kirschke (Engineering and Mining Journal – March 19, 2014)

India is no easy place to be a woman. Despite comprising a workforce majority in the teeming nation of 1.2 billion with equal rights under a 1949 constitution, India’s women are almost universally exploited while often denied access to health, education and other basic needs. Worse, the world’s second most populous nation looms among the most dangerous places for gender-based violence.

Madhya Pradesh, one of India’s poorest regions and home to Rio Tinto’s Bunder Diamond Project, is emblematic: In 2011, the National Crime Bureau recorded 3,406 assaults against women—surely a conservative figure, and the highest rate nationwide. But while meeting local women pending development of India’s No. 1 diamond resource the year before, Rio officials noticed another grouping: dozens of raised hands at a community meeting—all hoping for driving skills.

The diversified Anglo-Australian giant is now beating the curve in empowering women in a deeply tribal, hardscrabble land booming India has long since forgotten. Through community development, moreover, Rio Tinto is bringing a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) win-win for women in a trajectory where half marry before 18, and 60% of whom give birth within a year amid one of the highest infant mortality rates worldwide.

The story surrounding Rio’s CSR footprint in the 15 villages of 15,000 inhabitants each surrounding its Bunder site dates to 2006, two years after the discovery of porous volcanic outcroppings revealed the deposit. Over the next two years, Rio initiated a baseline survey indicating highly “feudal and patriarchal traditions” leaving women with exceptionally poor literacy, health, nutrition and community decision-making ability.

The result: a pilot program in Sagoria Village, yielding further engagement to explain human rights concepts to local women while encouraging network building and social bonding. These ongoing focus groups, added Rio officials, expanded across communities in the region 500 km southeast of New Delhi with coordination by the Chhatarpur District’s Department of Women and Child Development.

India has one of the world’s highest illiteracy rates, and the women of Madhya Pradesh are well represented—55% can neither read nor write. Mindfully, and with the help of a local nongovernmental organization (NGO) Gramdyog Sansthan, Rio also supported a traveling HIV/AIDS awareness performance in the region; so far, 12,000 have attended.

Literacy is addressed among further instructional programs emphasizing nutrition, health, childcare and employment. Local women draped in ornate saris, or traditional headscarves, often seen cradling their children, are pleased with the results. “If we’re going somewhere and something’s written, we know where we’re going,” said one woman; like many, she wore a nose ring, one way Hindus honor Parvathi, the goddess of marriage.

In its isolation, Madhya Pradesh boasts some of India’s great, unspoiled historical legacies. These include opulent temples harkening to the architecture, art and lifestyles of Hindu and Jain dynastic grandeur—alongside unremitting poverty: With India’s fourth-lowest GDP, its sixth-largest state also faces widespread hunger, despite its aqrarian economy and nascent tourism focused on wildlife and history.

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