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Rotary honors a tireless advocate for women and girls

The 2024 Sylvia Whitlock Leadership Award recipient promotes women’s health and empowerment


The 2024 recipient of Rotary International’s Sylvia Whitlock Leadership Award is a successful entrepreneur, a Rotary member of 20 years, and a tireless advocate for women and girls. Manjoo Phadke, of the Rotary Club of Pune Deccan Gymkhana, Maharashtra, India, has helped more than 100,000 girls and women through her many projects.

“I’ve always felt that women think of themselves as ‘lesser,’” she says. “I want to keep giving them confidence that they are not ‘lesser,’ and they can do whatever they set their minds to.”

Phadke’s Rotary colleagues praise her initiative and dedication.

“Manjoo’s professional and social accomplishments, positive attitude, and passion have set her apart as an influential leader and catalyst for change,” says Shailesh Narayan Palekar, the district Rotary Foundation chair for District 3131, who nominated Phadke for the award. “She is a lady who is very, very determined to work for young girls and women, and that is something that makes her exceptional.”

Manjoo Phadke, of the Rotary Club of Pune Deccan Gymkhana, Maharashtra, India, is the 2024 recipient of Rotary International’s Sylvia Whitlock Leadership Award.

Phadke has pursued numerous initiatives to support women’s health, including organizing clinics to offer medical checkups and mammograms and leading campaigns to promote menstrual hygiene.

“Unfortunately, in India, women have this tendency of neglecting themselves,” she says. “For example, if there is one liter of milk, women think it should be given to the men or the boys. We have to make them understand that if the woman of the house is healthy, the entire house can be healthy.”

She has worked extensively to increase the rate of vaccination against human papillomaviruses (HPV), the cause of almost all cases of cervical cancer. Not only did she help to secure US$800,000 in grants from The Rotary Foundation to pay for vaccinations, but she also negotiated their prices directly with vaccine suppliers. She ultimately helped secure savings of nearly two-thirds off the regular price per dose.

“The cost of two doses of the vaccine was ₹8,400 [about US$100] in India at that time, which was very, very high,” Palekar says. “We wanted to do about 10 global grants to vaccinate 25,000 girls. So, she used all her negotiating skills with the vaccine companies and brought the rate down to ₹3,400 [about US$40] — about 40% of the actual rate in the market.” The project ultimately met its target, vaccinating approximately 25,000 girls in rural and tribal areas.

Phadke also helped design and launch Project Asmita, a program that uses specially made videos and booklets to educate girls in life skills such as financial, digital, and legal literacy, as well as self-defense, nutrition, and menstrual health. The project, which also distributes free vitamins and sanitary napkins, has reached an estimated 100,000 girls and has become one of her district’s signature initiatives.

Designing the program was a natural step for Phadke, who runs a vocational education institute for lower-income students called SkillArbor. The institute takes a “learn while you earn” approach, connecting participants with employers on their first day in the program. As an entrepreneur herself, Phadke says, she has a special interest in helping women who want to run their own businesses. Her district recruited about 1,000 girls for a driver’s education program that enabled the participants to go into business as delivery drivers.

“We thought that if girls can be taught to drive, they can be employed as delivery girls for supply chain companies,” she says. “We also gave them some vans to ferry children to school.”

Phadke has conducted free workshops for women entrepreneurs for more than a decade, working closely with organizations that include the Maharashtra State Rural Livelihood Mission, the Utkarsh Welfare Foundation, and the Indira Group of Institutes. Her favorite success story was from a 17-year-old who started a business teaching other girls martial arts.

“She just started offering martial arts classes, and her business went on to become very successful,” Phadke says. “She told me, ‘I’ve now grown into a big business, and I’m earning a respectable amount of money, and everybody around me is amazed at that.’ It really touched my heart.”

She also helps women understand the legal system and their rights. For six years she served on the women’s safety committee of the Pune police commissioner, advising 10-12 women per week on legal literacy, financial planning, and conflict resolution.

“She’s been a wonderful leader,” Palekar says. “People are very comfortable interacting with her and working with her.”

Phadke is governor of Rotary District 3131 and has served her club as president, Foundation chair, and membership chair. One of her favorite programs is Rotary Youth Leadership Awards (RYLA), which she has helped her district organize since she joined Rotary in 2003.

Meet last year’s recipient of Rotary International’s Sylvia Whitlock Leadership Award.

— March 2024

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