Neha Limaye: Create Women’s Groups for Community Development
Community and NGO Background
This year, I am serving in Bakhel, a small subsistence-farming village in Rajasthan’s Udaipur District. The Bakhel community includes about 200 families spread over five mountainous hamlets. I have been living with one of these families for the past three months, learning and sharing their daily challenges. Most families, including my host family, live well below the poverty line, struggling to afford two meals a day. The main sources of income are selling any surplus crops and migrating for labor work during the dry season. We have no electricity or latrines, and the wells and hand pumps are predicted to run dry in the coming dry season. Healthcare is very limited and requires at least a four kilometer walk, and infectious disease and malnutrition are common. The literacy level in Bakhel is very low, especially among women. Children often do not go to school because they are taking care of livestock and doing labor work or because they feel no motivation to go. Girls attend even less as they frequently stay home to take care of their siblings. Women are married as teenagers and stay in a state of childrearing for many years. Women and girls do the vast majority of domestic work, everything from chopping firewood to making enormous corn rotis, and I have been trying to learn how to do them as well. Outside the home, women often respect and sometimes practice purdah (veiling of the face) in front of older males. Because Bakhel is an adivasi (indigenous) community, it also faces a lot of discrimination from the outside world. Bakhel is often dismissed as an “impossible” area to work in and has been neglected by both non-governmental and government organizations.
My partner organization, however, has been consistently engaging with Bakhel for the past five years. Hunar Ghar began in 2006, when the NGO’s two founders, Ed Forrest and Akshay Patel, decided to build a school in Bakhel. Over time, the school has evolved into a center for informal education, where children learn practical and vocational skills along with meeting government educational standards. Hunar Ghar currently has ten staff, and four of them are local, born and raised in Bakhel. It is expanding by one class each year, and right now has over 100 students from kindergarten to fourth grade. The school has also greatly improved the students and other local children’s nutrition levels through the provision of a midday meal. Hunar Ghar’s main focus thus far has been on education, but the long-term goal is to make the school a hub for community-focused sustainable development. Hunar Ghar led a few community initiatives, including a clean water campaign and seed and sapling distributions. This year we are expanding the scope of our community impact through my project, the creation of Bakhel women’s groups.
When I first read Hunar Ghar’s project description, I was immediately interested. The overall vision of the project was to provide Bakhel women with the space and support to build up their confidence, enabling them to increase the value of their opinions and actions in the male-dominated social structure. Women’s empowerment and gender equality is something I have always felt passionate about, and I was thrilled for the chance to turn my passion into action.
Since arriving here in Bakhel, I have been working to determine the steps to reach our vision. There are a variety of paths to empowerment, from boosting literacy to leading income generation projects, and my first struggle was choosing which path to journey down with my community. I had initially envisioned creating the type of savings-focused self-help groups (SHGs) that have been spreading across India, but I discovered that the women of Bakhel have had several negative experiences with NGOs setting up SHGs. Given my strong health background and the extent of serious health issues in Bakhel, I decided to try a different angle- empowerment through participatory health action groups.
Ideally, through these groups, women will build confidence in themselves and their capabilities, enabling them to bring about health behavior changes and other community changes. Though the potential health benefits of the project are exciting, I hope the main benefit can be the acknowledgement that leads to empowerment. Despite the incredible amount of work that women in Bakhel do every day, they are often ignored and their importance is dismissed. Through these women’s groups, the women are finally being acknowledged for all they do, and are being recognized as potential agents of change. Even in these initial stages of the first few meetings, the groups are giving the women something special, something that is entirely their own. I have seen women’s excitement when they see the activities has been prepared especially for them, letting them know they are entirely worth investing in. I hope that through these groups the women will have a safe space to be themselves, to develop and share their unique opinions, and to make changes in themselves and in their community.
Project Implementation Progress and Future Plans
Before I could create any women’s groups or choose a focus for the groups, my first goal was to get to know my community, to get to know the women and their struggles and joys. Along with this, I also had to start learning the local language, since most women have not gone to school and have not learned Hindi. Meeting families and building relationships has been a long but fun process. I moved into Bakhel in October, and through my enormous, welcoming host family, I began to get to know the Bakhel community. After countless home-visits and assisting with farm work, I am finally at the stage where I can stop by almost anyone’s house for a nice chat without feeling awkward or invasive. But as I get to know women better, I am discovering how little I really know about what goes on in Bakhel and that there is always more to learn.
In October, I also attempted to begin a girl’s youth group by starting a dance class. Although the girls were excited about the classes initially, the class slowly fell apart, and by the fourth class, no one came. It was disheartening, but also a learning experience- the girls and their families did not see the value in just dancing when they had so much work to do at home. In November, after doing a lot of research and considering the community’s needs and desires, I settled on creating a women’s group focused on participatory health action. I developed agendas for the first five meetings, where the women would discuss Bakhel’s health problems, prioritize the most important ones, and develop a plan to tackle each one individually. By the end of November, I finally felt ready to move on to my next goal- actually organizing and holding women’s group meetings. The Bakhel community is rather resistant to community projects after many experiences where NGOs have come, made promises and then left. In the few other community meetings we tried to hold during my first few months here, we had very poor attendance. I decided to rebuild interest by personally delivering invitations to each woman in the community, encouraging her to at least come once to see what I had been working on for so long. I also tried to get the local Hunar Ghar staff to encourage their female family members to attend.
The first meeting was really exciting and a bit overwhelming, since we had 45 women in attendance. Although we were only able to cover half of the agenda I had planned and there were several unexpected situations, the meeting felt like an overall success. The women decided we should hold meetings every two weeks. After the first meeting, I spent time with each woman who had attended, asking her how she felt about it, what things she like and what she would like to change. I also went on shorter visits to the women who had not attended, asking why they did not come and seeing if they were interested in coming to the next meeting.
At this point, I have held three meetings with one group. The women have identified all of the health problems at each stage of life in Bakhel, decided to focus on maternal and infant health issues, and at the latest meeting, voted on children’s diarrhea as the first problem to focus on. Along with the health discussions, we have also played a bunch of new games, laughed a lot, and the women have started learning how to write their names, so that they can sign in for meetings rather than giving their thumb print.
I feel like these first few meetings have given us a good start, and the women, with their women’s group activity books and bags, really feel like they are part of a new team that we are forming. However, there are many things I hope to change and improve in the coming months. I had initially wanted to co-facilitate the meetings with a woman from the community, but due to language barriers and some other complications, this was not immediately possible. I am working mainly with another teacher from Hunar Ghar, Vishnu Priya, who is very interested in working with the community. Although I am currently doing more of the planning for the meetings, I am consulting with Vishnu Priya as much as I can so that there will be a smooth transition when I leave. Also, as the meetings continue, certain local leaders will emerge, and by the end of my fellowship year, I hope that Vishnu Priya and one or two local women will be running the meetings themselves.
The third meeting had the lowest attendance, partially because the initial date coincided with a holiday, and in the date change some women were confused or misinformed. However, a major problem is that women do not really feel a responsibility or obligation to come. Although the first two meetings had many women show up, half of the women were different women. I plan to incorporate one consistent activity in each meeting, either boosting literacy or saving money together or something new, so that women feel that their presence is necessary for a meeting to happen. Also, we will be making rules and electing leaders of sub-groups at our next meeting to increase the women’s roles.
Even in the third meeting, the group was too big to have true discussions, and a few older women dominated conversation. However, splitting the group up by hamlet may not wise, since there are already so many divisions between hamlets. I am currently searching for a different way to have constructive, inclusive discussions without adding to the inter-hamlet discrimination. I am also trying to shrink the group by taking the adolescent girls who are attending and making a separate girls youth group. Finally, I am currently only engaging with the women in the three hamlets the school is most closely associated with, but I hope to expand into the two remaining hamlets soon.
By the end of my fellowship year, I hope to have assisted in forming two women’s groups, including women from all five hamlets of Bakhel. These groups will be led by one or two local women, and facilitated by a Hunar Ghar teacher, and we will have created a one-year and five-year plan. During the year, I hope that we can undertake at least two different health initiatives, that the women will have a solid foundation of health knowledge, and that they begin demanding the health care they are entitled to by the government. I hope the groups will be meeting consistently and the women will feel a responsibility to come to each meeting. Also, building off of my dance class attempts, I hope to find a sustainable way to engage with the adolescent girl population.
When I initially chose to serve as an Indicorps fellow, I kept explaining to my friends that I finally wanted to “DO something.” I had spent all of college learning about community development and global health issues, but all of my service experiences working with these issues felt short-term or incomplete. I felt driven to fully commit to one thing, to truly engage with one issue and serve one community for a substantial period of time. I also really wanted to live in India, to engage with a part of my culture and myself that before I had only understood partially, from afar.
Arriving at Indicorps Orientation, I was a little bit cocky- I felt like I already had the tools needed, and I wanted to get to my project site and begin. Indicorps quickly showed me that I had much to learn about what commitment and engagement really mean. The first day of orientation, we discussed the goal of putting meaning behind every thought, word and action. This, I am realizing, is the only way to really live a purposeful life. Striving to live this ideal is challenging, and something I struggle with every day, but it is making me think about who I am as a person and who I want to become.
Thinking about purpose comes naturally in Bakhel, where, if you are going somewhere, the first thing people ask is, “Hu leva?” as in “What are you going there to get?” At first, I was confused by the question, but I’ve realized that it makes a lot of sense- in the culture that is tied to the local language, you only go somewhere if you need to get something. You only take an action if it has a purpose. I now find myself asking this question about my travels, present, and future- what do I need to get by going? If I cannot answer, maybe I should not go. Beyond traveling, in the agricultural world, every small thing has purpose- even the water that drips from washing our hands is caught in a small tank for the chickens to drink from. As I look back, I realize that so many of the things I used every day and did every day for the past twenty-two years really had no use. Through my homestay in rural Maharasthra and my time spent here in Bakhel, I am seeing what it means to live without waste.
In these past six months, one simple thought that has frequently crossed my mind is that “all people are people.” As corny as it sounds, from the sugarcane fields of Maharashtra to the hills and boulders of Rajasthan, I have felt the strong thread of humanity that ties us all together. As different as people’s backgrounds and upbringings might be, there is something deeper that allows anyone to relate to anyone else, anywhere. All people are people- we all have struggles, family dilemmas, deal with nasty gossip, gossip ourselves, giggle and act silly- the list is infinite. I am realizing that so many of the lines we draw between ourselves and others, that I have drawn so frequently in the past are meaningless. I keep thinking about situations in my past when I decided not to talk to someone because “I wouldn’t know what to say” or “they wouldn’t want to talk to me anyway.” I’m discovering that these boundaries I put up were just a manifestation of my fear to be open and approach everyone in the same way. So many social divisions are constructed, which means they can also be destructed- it can begin with the small step of approaching someone new and asking them about their day and about their family.
I am breaking down my fear of approaching anyone, but there are still many other fears that I hope to conquer and challenges that I am facing. When I first arrived in Bakhel, I was a bit overwhelmed. My project description was very open and Hunar Ghar provided me with so much freedom that I was not sure how to even begin. I was afraid to proceed without guidance, to create based on my own rules. I had relied for my entire academic life on finishing assignments and tasks, and this much freedom was completely new to me. Indicorps really provided encouragement to be limitless- as long as I pushed myself to do as much as I could, there was no end to what I could do. I know I can still push myself harder, and hope that in this second half of the fellowship year, I get over the small fears that still hold me back. There have also been many emotional struggles during the months thus far; my confidence has been shattered more than a few times, I’ve faced health emergencies I had no idea how to deal with, burned with rage over gender inequalities around me, and felt many times like I was not really producing anything or that my efforts were a failure. Dealing with these struggles has definitely been forcing me to grow up, and knowing that I have the support of both Indicorps staff and all of my co-fellows allowed me to work through them.
After this year in India, I will be starting medical school back in the United States. Although I was always very interested in becoming a doctor and working in the field of global health, my excitement has definitely been rejuvenated by this year. I have been frustrated so many times by the way that the health system operates here in Bakhel and in many areas of rural India. Doctors spend less than two minutes per patient and often do no examination at all before giving the patient a variety of antibiotics. Patients, at the same time, demand medicine- if they do not get any or if the medicines do not work, the doctor is pronounced a failure. Although preventive health behaviors are promoted by the government, they rarely reach villages as remote as Bakhel, so for most villagers, health remains in the doctor’s hands, not their own. While it is frustrating, it is also exciting- if we can make adjustments to the health system, there is a chance for huge health improvements. I definitely hope to return to India once I have medical training and to use all that I learn during this year to make even bigger changes in the future.