Friday, August 10, 2007

Sister Sudha

My two months interning at Nari Gunjan are over and I can't quite believe how fast it all went! It was so difficult to say goodbye to Sister Sudha and all the girls from the hostel--we had a rather prolonged cry-fest on the day we left. Although I couldn't promise the girls I would be able to afford to come back and visit, I'm hoping to figure something out over winter break.

Working with Sister Sudha has been an amazing experience. She is such a strong, committed and inspiring woman. Without her, Nari Gunjan would be unable to fact when she was ill with typhoid for the last couple of weeks, it was difficult for her co-coordinators to run things without her direction--they would need to either call or visit her at the hospital. It was really touching the day she was discharged from the hospital and she returned to the hostel. The girls literally ran out in the middle of class to greet her, and many were crying. It was hard for them to not have her around, knowing that she was sick, and missing her...actually, I think it was pretty hard on all of us. By the time we left Patna on Tuesday, she was getting stronger and was preparing for a weeklong trip...thank goodness! It would have been that much harder to say goodbye if she were still sick. Mumbai has been great so far (we're planning to also visit Agra, Jaipur and Ladakh), but I miss Sister Sudha and the girls already.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Extreme Poverty

The monsoon is in full swing now...both our forays outside the hostel and our village visits have slowed down due to the rains and flooded streets, with water above the knee in some areas. Many Musahar families live in mud huts, and every monsoon season brings both hope and despair: hope for the opportunity of steady agricultural labor for the season, instead of the average 10 days per month of work for the rest of the year; despair due to the heavy, unceasing rains that literally wash away their homes, forcing them to rebuild their houses every year.

Nicole and I have begun compiling the data from our village visits in order to write up our report. The average wage for 10-11 hours of agricultural labor for a Dalit woman is about Rs. 30 per day, or $0.75, while her husband makes double that. Less than 1% of the women are literate, but hopefully with Nari Gunjan centers in the villages, their daughters will radically change those statistics. The girls attend the centers until they get married, at around 14 years of age (though the legal age in India is 18 for girls). We've also begun speaking with the women about child marriage laws, as well as domestic violence laws, in the third round. We know we won't be able to change everything overnight, but at least we can try...

Here are some photos from our village visits:

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Lifestyle changes

Over these last two weeks, since Francesco left, our lifestyles have changed quite radically. Nicole and I are now living in a spare room that's been used for storage at Prerana Hostel, right next to some of the girls we teach. We're also navigating the countryside on the backs of our translators' motorbikes (who are the co-coordinators of the organization) as we visit far-flung Musahar villages as opposed to taking autorickshaws. And since our surge-protector burst into flames last week, our work on the survey report, fundraising and creating a Nari Gunjan brochure has slowed down quite a bit. Thank goodness Nicole's aunt is sending us a new heavy-duty surge-protector, along with more DEET, permethrin and a large bottle of pepto bismol!

Our living situation had to be altered once it started raining heavily at night (after all, it's monsoon season)...our rented house's caretaker, Suji, sleeps in the unfinished second floor and apparently gets wet when it rains at night. The first time it happened, he banged on our front door in the middle of the night and slept in the unused bedroom that had bed bugs (poor Nicole). Upon learning about the incident, Sr. Sudha firmly told us that this was an improper arrangement and we should no longer answer the door at night. So the next time it rained, at 3:30 a.m., Suji banged on our front door, and upon our seeming indifference, came round to our open bedroom window and shone his flashlight onto us as we "slept", yelling the whole while. How creepy and inappropriate! I understand that nobody can sleep in the rain, but as he sleeps on the unfinished floor upstairs, he could have just moved his mattress into the covered garage instead. The day after, Sr. Sudha had us move into Prerana hostel. It's great being able to spend more time with the girls and Sr. Sudha...I just realized I have a little less than a month left here. So much to still do: we plan to continue the survey and do 3 more rounds of another 6 centers/villages, plus all the computer work that needs to be finished.

Here's a photo of Prerana Hostel, my new home:

Thursday, June 28, 2007


Last weekend we took a short trip to Varanasi, city of Lord Shiva and the holiest city for Hindus. It was amazing! I don't have much time to describe the trip, but other than getting sick for the first time in India, I wish to visit Varanasi again and take a boat at sunrise down the Ganges River. Here are some photos of the ghats (banks), Nicole and me with a Baba (priest/holy man), the 3 of us making friends with Ramesh, a store owner, and evening prayers along one of the main ghats.

Challenges faced by Musahar women

We've almost completed the third round of our survey, in which we meet with women's groups to discuss domestic violence and inform them of a new domestic violence law passed in 2005. As we spoke with them, we realized that abuse is a daily part of the lives of almost all the women. The terrible thing is (aside from the violence), many of the women believe that upon marriage, they are the property of their husbands/husbands' families and that it is their husbands' right to beat them. It was quite difficult to explain the concept of individual rights and freedom from a life of abuse--something completely alien to the women. We informed them about the new law, and how they have legal recourse to the state. However, they strongly feel that they cannot report their husbands for a host of reasons: they are economically dependent on their husbands (Musahar women generally earn one-half to one-third of their husbands' incomes); they have nowehere to go if they leave because they are no longer welcome in their own parents' home; and they fear retaliation. In Sahpur, a village we visited last week, the group (shown right) told us that a woman from a different Scheduled Caste had been driven to commit suicide due to her husband's cruelty (daily beatings). Although she told other women in the village, nobody helped her because it was considered a family affair. The police are not part of the picture because they are corrupt and distrusted by everyone. The community in general is quite alienated from the government, and they are regularly discrimated against. We learned more about challenges faced by the Musahars when we met with some UNICEF officers this morning. They asked us to write up the results of our survey in a report that they want us to present to the local government before Nicole and I leave in August (Francesco leaves this Sunday, sadly). Hopefully advocacy will help this community receive the services they're supposed to be receiving, such as sanitation systems, health services, and so forth, which will in turn help them surmount the many challenges they face. But perhaps the greatest challenge is changing societal attitudes towards women and gender equality--something that may take a generation or two.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

First Impressions of Bihar

I've been in Bihar for almost a week now but it feels like I've been here for at least a month! Our mornings consist of taking surveys (on income, family, political awareness) in nearby villages and the afternoons are spent playing with the girls at the hostel and giving them English lessons. Since Nicole and Francesco have been here since the last week of May, I'm basically following the work schedule they planned with Sr. Sudha for the month of June. One of my big challenges this summer is learning how to ride a bike (yes, shocking, I know)'s not just learning how to ride, but learning how to maneuver through the cows, goats, dogs, rickshaws, autorickshaws, cars, trucks, buses and pedestrians on the street. Oh, and did I mention that the monsoon is starting?!

The 90 girls who live at Prerna Hostel all come from the 'untouchables' Musahar community (Musahar meaning they eat rats), most from the various villages and slums where we take the surveys. Nari Gunjan has 50 centers spread among these villages, which serve as elementary schools for the communities (most of the students are girls) and a base to work with women's Self-Help Groups (SHGs). We survey the SHGs in three stages: first to just meet the community and interact with them; the second we actually take the survey (with the help of translators who are the Nari Gunjan coordinators); and for the third stage we're planning some kind of information/education campaign about the new domestic violence law that has recently passed. Since the great majority of the women are illiterate, it will be a challenge to come up with some kind of handout, but we're hoping we can create something that we can leave them with...we'll see! Here are some photos of the Nari Gunjan center and village meeting from Digha, a slum we visited on Tuesday:

Although I've only been interacting with the girls at the hostel for a week, they are really special--it's difficult to describe so I hope my photos will suffice for the time being. There's just such a joy around them, I can't really explain it...Anyhow, on Wednesday we all (about 100 of us) took an overnight field trip to visit Bodhgaya, where Buddha reached enlightenment, and Nalanda, the ruins of temples and monasteries that was one of the first universities in the world. It was simply amazing! I'm including photos of the tree under which Buddha achieved enlightenment, along with photos of various temples and a playground where we played with the girls, near one of the temples.

Saturday, June 9, 2007


I've been in Delhi for two full days now and so far it's been amazing! My whole trip didn't start out too smoothly though--my luggage got left behind in Heathrow yesterday, but British Airways put it on the next flight so they delivered it to me this morning. I was lucky in that Carol and Jukka, my very hospitable hosts, sent a driver to pick me up at the airport, and he was really helpful in filing the proper reports and so forth. After my second breakfast of the day (my first being on the plane), I ran errands: registering at the Philippine Embassy and shopping for clothes in New Delhi. My break was Happy Hour at the Canadian Embassy where Carol works--it was SO hot out though, I wish we weren't merely sitting by their chilled pool but that we were in it!

Apparently the temperatures these last few days have been record highs: it hit 47-48 degrees Celsius today (116-118 Farenheit). And I was running around Old Delhi for five was hot, but definitely worth seeing! I started off by taking a cab to the Lal Qila, or Red Fort (built during the peak of the Mughal Empire) and walked around. Its walls extend for 2 km and there are several structures inside its massive walls--I was particularly struck by the Moti Masjid (Pearl Mosque--below), which one of the emperors built for his private use.

The Red Fort is at the end of one of the main arteries of Old Delhi, an extremely busy street called Chandi Chowk. I took a rickshaw ride to visit the Sikh Temple, went through the saree market, the silver market, the "wedding street" (where everyone goes to buy decorations for weddings--very colorful!), and ended up buying more salwar kameez outfits. While attempting to bargain with the stall owner, I met Boyd Wilson, Professor of Religion at Hope University in Michigan. Apparently he runs a traveling seminar throughout India every summer, and he was trying to identify shops where his female students could buy inexpensive clothing. It was serendipitous! Since we had the same goal to find cheap clothing stores, I paid the rickshaw driver and followed Prof. Wilson into the back alleys of this cloth market. After some success with shopping, we went to Jama Masjid, the biggest mosque in India. We left our shoes by the south entrance and made the mistake not to buy socks--the cement, having baked in the scorching heat, basically gave me third-degree burns on the soles of my feet! At least that's what it felt like....the mosque was awesome, its architect being Isa Khan, who also the main architect for the Taj Mahal in Agra--can't wait to visit that!

Although I'm excited to start my internship in Bihar, I'm a little sad to be leaving Delhi already. I feel like I'm just starting to figure out how things work around here and got to meet up this evening with Alla, Siobhan, Adam and Jay (who are all working for Fab India) but I'm leaving tomorrow evening. One funny thing though--whenever I tell an Indian national that I'm going to be spending my summer in Bihar, they give me the exact same "are you crazy?" look. I guess I'll see what they mean by that soon enough!