Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Is advocacy a dirty word?

Scene: Inside the heads and hearts of PRADANites.

I’m PRADAN’s “Advocacy Intern” for the summer. But “advocacy” at PRADAN seems to be a misnomer.

So, PRADAN’s been empowering poor and marginalized women for over 20 years. All along, PRADANites have regularly interacted with policymakers, elected officials, and financial institutions to help communities connect to the resources that they need – for example, to develop a watershed or buy better seeds or market their tasar silk.

And yet, nobody here identifies themselves as advocates or any part of their work as advocacy. In the first two weeks of my internship, I interviewed a few dozen PRADAN staff to help PRADAN reflect on its advocacy experience to date and to start generating a more focused mandate for impacting the context in which they work.

“So tell me a bit about your personal experiences in advocacy.” - Me
“You want to talk about advocacy? What do I know about it?” – PRADANite #1 or # 2 or #20
“We’re implementers with our focus on the field. We’re not advocates.” – PRADANite #___

A prominent Indian leader of an international research think tank here offered his explanation of this mindset: “Nobody wants to be considered an advocate, because it means you have a drum to beat. You are on one extreme or another, where knowledge and evidence have no place.”

Is this surprising in a place like India where Gandhiji and the civil resistance movement is the foundation of the country’s democracy and the inspiration of activists around the world? And more recently, where the Right to Information campaign has helped secure every Indian the right to ask questions and demand accountability of the government?

Trying to dig deeper, I asked PRADANites to walk me through their engagement with the government and other institutions. How do you interact? What are you trying to achieve? Do you think you’ve been successful and if so, what’s worked well? If not, what are the challenges or constraints you’ve faced?

“Here’s how we shifted the mindset and strategy of a district development officer…I helped a self help group present their proposals on how to improve their village to the Gram Sabha…I’m on the state government’s committee on women’s empowerment…” or “We’ve been trying for months to secure a meeting with a district collector without any luck…I can’t get invited to participate in the state government’s consultations…Even though the Sarpanch has seen our fields and came to the self help group's meetings, he still doesn’t get our approach and do what the women ask.”

Despite an aversion to the word advocacy (read it slowly for extra effect), PRADANites are doing it and want to be doing it more and doing it better. “Advocacy is essential. If the problems of the rural poor aren’t highlighted, our implementation in the field can only go so far.”

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Guest Post: If I Only Had a Banana and Two Apples

Scene: the internet/the agribusiness world in India

Introducing Niyati, my friend and a joint degree student at the Kennedy School of Government and Harvard's Business School. Niyati, like me, is spending her summer interning in Delhi. Like me, she's...a woman.


Wow, my first blog entry. I feel super privileged to be a guest blogger for Ms. Melanie Vant. Who knew that 6 months ago when I barged into a Food and Agricultural Development Professional Interest Council meeting at Petsi's coffees, that we would find ourselves in Delhi on overnight trains to Punjab, dancing to Bollywood music and discussing rural development to no end. One recurring topic is the role of women in agribusiness, which inevitably turn into a narration of various obstacles I face in my daily work. So I thought I would use this guest blog to expound on a couple of these issues.

I am working for a fruit and vegetable procurement and distribution company, along with two other women – the boss’s secretary and the head of HR. Currently, there are hurdles at three levels. First – being a woman working in business in India. Second – being a woman working in agribusiness. Thirdly – being a (single) woman working in Delhi. As I’m sure Mel has lots to say about the third, I’ll stick to the first two.

Propriety, class structure and socio-economic status continue to dictate social norms in India. As such being a woman from a “good family” and having an education is actually considered a barrier to being able to converse with each part of the value chain – such as produce distributors, and fruit vendors. Aside from being externally perceived as improper (i.e., by your family) it may actually make other parties uncomfortable, and it is difficult to build the social connections and relationships that reign supreme in this business. On top of this the odd hours and extensive field work required all but makes it impossible for women to do this type of work.

I find the same network building challenges in business more generally in India (although I should caveat that I’m basing this off of Northern experiences). Staying in the company guesthouse a male colleague would use dinner time as an opportunity to network with other colleagues. A female colleague would eat on her own, the men waiting for her to finish before beginning or she would take the tray of food in her room separately. I have witnessed late night conference calls and management meetings with a few drinks and laughs, where the one or two senior women are rarely present – or take part in only the call and not the socializing. These issues of course are not unique to India, but given the importance of who you know in business here they are more detrimental to the career success of a woman. Moreover, the clearly demarcated gender roles in more traditional businesses leave little space for a woman to even imagine how they could fit in.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Hinduism. Rated NC 17.

Scene: Inappropriate?

I can’t claim to be a student of religion, but I have been trying to brush up on my Hinduism. India is home to about one billion Hindus, over 80% of the country’s population. There are temples just about everywhere – straddling highway dividers, sandwiched in between tea stalls, popping out of endless fields of rice paddy. Some new, others older than a millennium. Many people keep shrines in their homes and on the dashboards of whatever mode of transportation they access from public bus to auto rickshaw. During my trip out east for work, I nearly panicked when my taxi driver jumped out of the car in the middle of a congested intersection without saying a word… to realize a minute later that he was paying a quick visit to a roadside temple to pray for a safe journey. (This happened in Delhi once too with an auto driver, but he was just buying gutka, the local equivalent of chewing tobacco.)

When an HKS classmate proposed a weekend trip to Khajuraho to visit its famed temples, I jumped on the opportunity. What’s all the fuss? A World Heritage Site - 25 sandstone Hindu (and some Jain) temples, about a thousand years old, dotted with…erotic sculptures. Really? Here? Where I haven’t seen one public display of romantic affection. Where TV stations cut to commercial pre-kissing scenes in American movies. Where women riding on motorbikes drape their legs to one side rather than straddle the seat and the backs of their male drivers.

Yep. Surrounding these temples, among intricate carvings of Hindu mythology and everyday life circa the year 900 CE, there’s… ummm...this...

Pretty graphic, even for my American eyes. But look at those facial expressions! According to the audio tour, via a walkman without a rewind button, these sculptures trace back to tantric traditions. (BLOG COMMENT CONTEST: Post a line from the audio tour?) These images are but a tiny fraction, though, of the Badgujar tribe’s religious and architectural legacy.

Coming soon: bats and baboons in Orcha

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Your husband is going to love you very much.

Scene: The wedding of my lifetime

No, I didn’t get married. But I did go to a wedding…with another 10,000 people. To say that weddings here are a big deal is an understatement. But this one was extreme.

It all started with a mass email from an HKS classmate, who was writing on behalf of another HKS classmate, whose sister was getting married. “You’re all invited to Jaipur.” How could I turn down a trip to the Pink City (painted so to welcome the Prince of Wales during a visit in 1853) for my first Indian wedding?

Words and photos won’t do the experience justice, but here goes...

Think marathon. Weddings can be week-long affairs. We spent Saturday at the bride’s house for a series of rituals – religious offerings, jewelry adornment, gift giving, etc.

The bride and her parents with several priests, surrounded by female relatives and friends.

Suitcases of gifts from the groom’s family – a jewelry set to enrich each outfit.

My first and hopefully not my last "mehndi" experience. Every woman at work the next week took my hands into theirs exclaiming that such dark mehndi means that my husband is going to love me very much. Thank you?

After a group nap back at the hotel, the gang got gussied up. Two friends spent 20 minutes tucking and pleading my sari into all of the right places.

Post-photo shoot, we arrived at the reception - an open field fit for a carnival, framed by garlands and food stalls. First the groom’s entrance, preceded by a brass band and another of bagpipe players wearing kilts (???). With fireworks exploding overhead, the groom arrived atop a painted elephant and then a white horse, the standard limo of Indian weddings. The bride arrived on foot with just us humans in tow. Maybe I should have offered to carry her?

Next stop: this flower-adorned stage where the couple finally met. For the next five hours, they and their immediate families stood here to receive thousands of guests who literally pushed their way through the family-turned-security bouncers to bestow blessings.

Amidst this scene, we were treated like royalty. When the lines for plates and food got straight up unruly, we were assigned our own waitstaff and this absurd serving of ice cream.

At 1 am, when most of the guests had finally left and the couple exited the stage, I declared "We did it!"

Irony times two. "We" hadn't done anything...and the actual wedding hadn't happened yet. Rather than "stick" out the humidity until the final ceremony at dawn, we decided to head back to the hotel to rest our exhausted bodies in preparation for an ambitious day of sightseeing. I think I'll always regret that decision.

The most memorable moment of the entire weekend was the next night. After we briefly welcomed the new couple back in to the bride's house, it was time for her to literally leave her family to join her groom's at his house where she would now live. As an outsider wholly unfamiliar with this culture, I might attribute the lack of American-style wedding emotion displayed up until this moment to the business and the piety of the affair, the anxieties of marrying a near stranger, chaos and orderliness, exhaustion and expectations. But the feelings poured out of everyone's eyeballs when the front door opened and closed. We all wept and wept and wept.

The only appropriate ending to such an intense weekend: Parminder with our gift to the new couple, signed “Best Wishes from Harvard University friends.”

PS. I've been trying for days to upload videos without any success, so will keep you posted of any e-progress.