Monday, June 28, 2010

From Thumbprints to Signatures

Scene: Belagara Village, 20 kilometers from Khunti in the state of Jharkhand

I covered a lot of ground last week: a 26-hour train ride to Jamdshedpur or “Steel City,” long but surprisingly smooth car rides to PRADAN field teams in Karanjia and Khunti and the Jharkhand state office in Ranchi, an overnight train to Kolkata (Calcutta), and a flight home to Delhi.

No offense, Tata, but the women of Belagara Village left the most lasting impression. I spent my birthday learning from them what a difference a bell can make.

First, meet Sailaballa and Imtiyaz, two “PRADANites” who each enable 1,000 tribal women and their families in villages around Khunti to transform their own lives.

PRADANites start their work by finding the poorest villages and initiating self-help groups (SGHs) of 10-15 women. The women reflect upon their current knowledge, resources, agency, and collaboration. They generate and commit to a common vision for their desired state of the world and then come up with and implement a plan of action. All the while, PRADAN trains Community Resource Persons (CRPs) and Community Service Providers (CSPs), whom the SHG selects, pays, and monitors, to steward this process. Together, they figure out what the community can do on their own, what help they need from the CRPs and CSPs, and what additional support they want from PRADANites. They build lasting institutions and their own assets so that PRADAN can begin to “withdraw” after a few years.

In Belegara, the sound of this bell brought several members of a self-help group together for my visit, as it does for their weekly meetings.

Asha Purty, the SHG’s accountant, recounted life before the SHG and PRADAN. Each day, she and others would scrounge up one rupee (about two cents) to buy whatever that could get them from the distant market; they rarely spoke to anyone outside of their home and had never visited an office; they couldn’t afford to send their children to school.

Through the SHG, the village came up with a development plan, started harvesting crops, managing their natural resources, saving money, and accessing credit. Now, the village is food secure for eight months of the year through their own production and families are generating enough income to send their children to school. “There is no difference between girl and boy children,” Asha declared emphatically. “Before we’d only leave our thumbprints for any business. Now we sign our names at the bank.”

Asha is charged with keeping weekly accounts of the SHG’s money and tracking the loans taken by members. One woman takes minutes of weekly meetings, another woman keeps the moneybox, another the key to it.

Armed with umbrellas to shield us from the midday sun, the women walked me through their plots of land. Before, no food could be grown here because the land wasn’t flat, the soil was infertile, and there wasn't water. Here's one field that had just been leveled and planted.

This is one well and one of five water-harvesting structures built in the last three months alone. Now these farmers can capture rainwater during the monsoon in this otherwise dry environment.

PRADAN helped the community access funding through a government program called "SGSY" for this nursery that supplies 4-5 SHGs. PRADANites worked with the government over a decade ago to develop this program and now its transition into an expanded (and hopefully more effective) National Rural Livelihoods Mission.

This self-help group selected Magdali Nag to represent them in the governing board of a local horticulture cooperative of 4,000 women that they had started with PRADAN’s help. (300 women have also formed a poultry cooperative that supplies 80% of the local market.) When asked what this experience has meant for her, Magdali said a feeling of ownership. “This is our business and we have to take it to a better position.”

This is Magdali and her husband Samuel in their field of young mango trees. Samuel is one of the PRADAN-trained Community Resource Persons in the area who helps the self-help group carry out their business. When I asked him about his ambitions, he said, “I’ll be doing this work so long as I have strength in my body.”

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Forecast: Widespread Dust

Scene: South Delhi, amidst construction for the Commonwealth Games

Last week, I finally set up shop in a mostly residential neighborhood in South Delhi called Safdarjung Enclave. I share a two-story apartment on the second floor of this building sandwiched between two day-care centers full of two-year old children.

I live with two Indian sisters from Agra (think Taj Majal), Pooja (27) and Teesha (22), and Teesha’s friend from college, Devika (22). It’s still quite uncommon for young professionals, particularly women, to live independently from their parents. Not surprisingly, all the youngsters escape to our place after work and on the weekends.

Here's Pooja, the mother of the house, with Mylo. He breathes loudly and eats more mangoes than me.

And a cheeky Teesha.

Monday through Saturday, I take an auto rickshaw (with this view!) to my office in Gulmohar Park, a 15-minute ride without traffic. That’s right, a six-day workweek.

PRADAN's office is on the second floor of this building.

Lucky for me, everyone shares the contents of their “tiffen boxes” (Tupperware) for communal “khanna” and snack sessions. Meet the ladies of the HR department responsible for over 400 staff who are recruited from 60 universities and colleges across India and trained through a rigorous apprenticeship and professional development program.

I’m heading out today for a week-long visit to PRADAN’s field offices in Orissa and Jharkhand and a meeting in Calcutta with PRADAN's Integrated Natural Resource Management Team. I’m looking forward to experiencing firsthand PRADAN’s models for advancing sustainable rural livelihoods and women’s empowerment in India’s poorest and most marginalized communities. Let the 22 hour train ride begin…

Sunday, June 13, 2010

"We have a lot of work to do."

Scene: Physically, I’m in my new apartment in Delhi but my conscience is stuck in Babiole, Port-au-Prince. Sorry for the delay and length, sans photos.

So says Danielle Magliore, a pillar of Haiti’s feminist movement. Four months after the earthquake, she was still living in a tent next to her office when I visited with with her.

Three leaders of the movement were less lucky, losing their lives but not their legacies:

Myriam Merlet, founder of Haiti’s national coalition on women’s advocacy issues (KONAP) and of the women’s rights organization, Enfofam, whose office and only archive of the women's movement in Haiti was destroyed in the quake.
Magalie Marcelin, founder of KayFamn or Women’s House, the first home for battered women in Haiti.
• Anne-Marie Coriolan, founder of another major advocacy group, SOFA, which launched its first campaign against gender-based violence in 1987.

Some quick context
Put simply, women have always been the backbone of Haiti's society and economy, but are far from empowered. Their political involvement is minimal and constrained. For example, over half of the population, Haitian women typically hold only 5-10% of seats in Parliament, but face significant hurdles in exercising their power and keeping it.

Records of the fight for gender equity in Haiti date back to the mid-1800s. Most of the organizations above emerged after the fall of dictator “Baby Doc” Duvalier in 1986, when many Haitian activists returned from exile. These women led the broader fight for human rights and democracy while championing a feminist agenda. After years of agitating and negotiations, the government formed the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and Rights in 1994; chronically underfunded and politically constrained, it has struggled to achieve its mandate. The movement, though, celebrated a procedural win in 2005 when Parliament finally passed legislation criminalizing rape. Like many other laws in Haiti, it's weakly enforced.

Fast forward to January 12th

The earthquake destroyed the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, which Danielle described as “our baby.” The Minister’s international travel schedule saved her life, but Myriam (the Chief of Cabinet), Myra Narcisse, the Director General, and several staff died in the rubble. In the months since, volunteers from Danielle’s organization visit one IDP camp after another to document reports of violence against women and girls. Sitting in Danielle's office, I held hundreds of forms in my hands, each page representing one woman's abuse and hope for retribution.

So now what?
In addition to what we must learn from the past, I wanted to know what next. Of the Haitian activists and organizations left standing, what are their priorities in rebuilding their movement and their country? What challenges do they face and what do they need to overcome them?

Others were apparently asking different questions of different people.

After the earthquake, hundreds of mostly foreign “experts” holed up for weeks in one of the few remaining hotels in Port-au-Prince to conduct a “Post Disaster Needs Assessment” and to develop an “Action Plan” for the reconstruction and development of Haiti. This process and its outcomes were flawed in several respects, not least of which was a woeful neglect of gender.

At the Action Plan’s unveiling during a donor conference at the UN in March, a group of international and local NGOs launched a shadow report to propose a more comprehensive approach to gender. Nearly simultaneously, over 100 Haitian organizations from across the country started a new coalition, the Femmes Citoyennes Ha├»ti Solidaire or Women's Citizens Haiti United. Their eight coordinating bodies each meet weekly, no easy task in Port-au-Prince. One snippet of their comprehensive longer-term vision: the first-ever university-level women’s studies program.

Danielle is right. There is a lot of work to do. To which I reply with the Haitian proverb: men anpil, chay pa lou. Many hands lighten the load.

Monday, June 7, 2010


Scene: Back in the Suri Residence

My transition last week from Port-au-Prince to Delhi was hectic but smooth. I managed to find a flat on Day 1 and began work on Day 2. Perhaps in an effort to acclimate to Delhi’s heat, my body temperature rose accordingly on Day 3. Acute gastroenteritis had set in before I could unpack. I’ll spare you the details, worldwide web. They ain’t pretty.

Thankfully, my new flatmates, local Kennedy School friends, and their families knew just want to do... as did my caretakers at the Max Specialty Hospital, widely regarded as the best medical facility in Delhi. On Day 7, I’m relieved to BLOG that I’m on the dusty road to recovery.

I’m now recuperating at my friend Anirudh's house where the food, drinks, and loving care runneth over.

Stay tuned for an entry about the status of the women’s movement in Haiti and another with a glimpse into my set-up in Delhi. Thanks for all of the love!