MYTH: Amma only pretends to care about women’s rights. In reality she treats them as second-class citizens, with fewer rights and privileges than men.
REALITY: Women in Amma’s organization have been empowered to serve in management positions as well as many schools and institutions, where they manage men as well as women. Amma has also empowered women to break many traditional gender barriers, from serving as priests to working as plumbers. Amma’s programs in women empowerment have transformed the lives of more than 100,000 women.
Srividya’s experience implementing women empowerment programs under Amma’s guidance proves that these allegations are unfounded. The reality is that Amma is deeply committed to empowering women—within her ashram, within all of her institutions and within society as a whole. The following is her first-hand account:
My name is Srividya Sheshadri, and I am from the United States. I have been working as a social-science researcher at Amrita University since 2008, and I became the leader of the research team for Amrita’s Women Empowerment (WE) Project in 2012.
It was after graduating with a Master of Science in Social Work from Columbia University that I felt drawn to join Amma’s global humanitarian organization, Embracing the World, for its commitment and focus on social service. And while I have known Amma for the last 26 years, my experience since moving to India and working at Amrita University’s AMMACHI Labs has reaffirmed what I have always known to be true about Amma: that her entire life is dedicated to selflessly serving others, and a big part of that service is about empowering women. I am writing this to share my experience in the field, which has helped me appreciate all that Amma does.
Amma Is the Embodiment of Women Empowerment
The concept of “empowerment” often becomes convoluted—there are many interpretations as to what “empowerment” means. However, the tangible impact of Amma’s initiatives upon the lives of women in India has shown me first-hand what empowerment really is. Allow me to share some personal experiences to show you what I mean.
I had the privilege of being a part of a very small team that trained and certified India’s first-ever batch of female Assistant Plumbers through our computerized vocational training tool (revolutionized by the application of haptics and simulation technology for skill development.) Not only was Amma the visionary behind this path-breaking effort, she also personally guided and motivated the female pioneers. Her faith in the women’s capacity to succeed in this field also strengthened my resolve that age-old social norms can be broken.
When many of the women who were a part of our first batch of plumbers signed up, they didn’t know that they would be ultimately learning plumbing; they thought they would just be learning how to use a computer. When they came to understand the actual syllabus of the course, many of them continued only because of their trust in Amma and the credibility of MA Math.
But soon we witnessed their motives for staying in the course broaden. Initially, they were enthused by using computers for the first time—something they never imagined they would ever do. A few had computers in their own homes but were forbidden by their husbands to touch them. This had made them fearful of technology and had deepened their insecurities. However, as the course progressed and they saw that they were actually learning how to be plumbers through the computers, there was a perceptible transformation in their self-esteem. Within a few months they were cutting pipes for the first time, installing faucets, repairing toilets and tiling bathrooms. As their hidden talents were gradually uncovered, you could see that they started to really believe that they were capable of anything. Within a span of just six months, we witnessed the transformation of these women from being so timid that they were afraid to even touch a computer mouse to being able to boldly stand on the stage of an auditorium, filled with an international audience, and demonstrate their mastery of plumbing skills.
I remember being surprised by the women’s unwavering determination. I would have never expected any of these women to take up a technical vocational trade in a male-dominated field. But Amma was their inspiration. She made it clear that she believed in them, covering all the expenses of their education—from training to tools. Amma personally instilled in them the courage to face any challenges that arose by counseling and encouraging them along the way. Even the discouraging remarks from members of their community, who were unable to conceive of the concept of female plumbers, did not sway their determination.
Today, I continue to be in awe of these ladies, who didn’t just successfully complete a computerized plumbing training course (three months training followed by a three-month apprenticeship) but who also then put their skills to use, working for the past two years as full-fledged plumbers.
Following the demonstrated success of our innovative technology to train individuals in vocational training and life-skills using computers, AMMACHI Labs decided to scale the project to empower 3,000 women in the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. We decided to call the expanded version the Women Empowerment Project (WE). With support from the United Nations Democracy Fund (UNDEF) and Amrita University, the WE Project was inspired by Amma’s vision for “a world in which women and men progress together, a world in which all men respect the fact that, like the two wings of a bird, women and men are of equal value.” 
Within 18 months, the WE Project met its goal of providing vocational training to more than 3,000 women struggling to find financial independence. We did this through our cutting-edge computerized vocational-education technology curriculum . The immediate results have been moving, to say the least. The women impacted by the WE Project speak for themselves:
Sreelekha, Changanasseri WE Center Graduate (Batch 1):
“I was never involved in any social initiative like this before taking the course. The WE project is a platform for vulnerable women like myself to voice an opinion and come out of the self-oppressed state we live in. If we can provide the right environment women like me will definitely voice their opinion.”
Sunitha, Meppadi WE Center Graduate (Batch 8):
“Women Empowerment is not just about having the freedom to whatever we want. It’s also about having the self confidence and courage to do whatever we are capable of. The desire and ability to move forward in life has to come from within ourselves.”
Savithri, Madurai, WE Center Graduate (Batch 2)
“People would go out of their way to avoid inviting me anywhere*… While I’m still not invited to attend any functions, I feel welcome at the WE Centre. For the first time, I’ve started to go out to other places, like my children’s school and college. Through this course, I left a life in jail and stepped out into the world again.”
(*Savithri was widowed early in her marriage and as per the custom of her community, widows are considered a bad omen and often forbidden to attend any social gatherings.)
These projects have not only challenged the traditional barriers that limited women and people from lower-caste communities, but have also set new trends and expanded the cultural social psyche, bringing it closer to one that accepts and treats men and women equally.
Amma Is the International Development Expert
While academicians cite vocational education as a pathway out of poverty, our initial pilot studies exposed the need for something beyond vocational training to help ensure employability. What we learned through experience, Amma has always known, as evidenced by her multidimensional concept of poverty:
“In today’s world, people experience two types of poverty: the poverty caused by lack of food, clothing and shelter, and the poverty caused by lack of love and compassion. Of these two, the second type needs to be considered first—because, if we have love and compassion in our hearts, then we will wholeheartedly serve those who suffer from lack of food, clothing and shelter.” 
Having been with the project and having witnessed the participants’ transformations from the very start, I know without a doubt that the only reason it is has been and continues to succeed is through Amma’s visionary leadership in breaking the barriers of poverty.
When they started the course, it was apparent that their worldview and view of their own capacity was confined mainly to the gendered-static roles as wife or mother or wife/mother-to-be. Having been mainly confined to their homes, they lacked opportunities to broaden their horizons. This course helped them to gain a new, much broader view of their own capacities and possibilities.
The thousands of women impacted by the WE Project are a testament to Amma’s vision and commitment to helping marginalized communities.
And the spectrum of impact is wide: Women who were widowed for years, feeling lost and purposeless, are now driven to succeed; women whose husbands didn’t trust or believe their wives could survive in the world without them, have demonstrated that they are just as capable; women who were left with the responsibility of providing for their own family after being abandoned by their husbands now have the means and courage to do so; women who felt socially and geographically isolated now have a bond with their community; women who were help-seekers are now help-providers, paying it forward. All of the 3,000-plus women that have been trained via the WE Project have an improved quality of life in at least one way or another.
Another inspiring project is Amrita SREE (Amrita Self-Reliance Education & Employment) initiative, which facilitates the formation of self-help groups for women. Following the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, Amma immediately recognized and addressed the need for vocational training and empowerment, particularly for women. The devastation and loss had forced many women into a role for which they were unprepared. Amrita SREE was launched with the goal of empowering women with a sense of security and financial stability through vocational training and community support. Since 2004, the program has helped more than 100,000 women throughout India to form self-help groups and start their own businesses in a variety of trades such as beautician, snack-production, tailoring, nursing, driving, handicrafts, electronic repair and more.
The WE Project and Amrita SREE are just two of the many humanitarian initiatives Amma has launched that are now in full swing. Real people are benefiting and real lives are transformed. My experience confirms that Embracing the World is an amazing NGO with significant reach and the impact to deliver on what it sets out to do. I am so grateful knowing that the work I do is significant, fulfilling and meaningful.
What I have understood from my experience is that, to Amma, no individual is insignificant. Amma has offered her entire life to the selfless service of the world and inspires others to do whatever they can to help those in need.
For Further Reading:
Women Empowerment Project: AMMACHI Labs
 Amrita University’s AMMACHI Labs (Amrita Multi Modal Applications Using Computer Human Interaction) is a center of technological innovation breaking new ground in the field of computer-human interaction, developing application designed to improve quality of life for the least fortunate among us. See: www.amrita.edu/ammachi
 The computerized vocational education MES Assistant Plumbing course was developed completely in-house at AMMACHI Labs.
A workshop on haptics and computerized learning for skill development in vocational education was held at Amrita University on January 3, 2012 as a part of an international conference on technology-enhanced education.
MA Math is the parent organization of Amrita University.
 Excerpt from Amma’s keynote address delivered at The Global Peace Initiative of Women Religious and Spiritual Leaders in Geneva 2002.
cVET and LEE were developed entirely in-house at Ammachi Labs.
 Excerpt from Amma’s speech, “May Peace & Happiness Prevail”, delivered at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, Barcelona, Spain, 2004.