Asha Gandhi: Utilize Recycling for Empowerment
Mid-Year Public Progress Report
Asha Gandhi attended Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where she majored in Operations Management and Economics. Her project with Kutch Mahila Vikas Sangathan (KMVS) aims to improve the livelihood and self-respect among urban impoverished women in Bhuj, Gujarat. Asha is committed to seeking other perspectives and engaging with her community to develop solutions that they can implement themselves.
There was a moment before my twenty-sixth birthday that I remember quite vividly. I was on the twenty-sixth floor, of a prominent building in Times Square, staring into my computer screen – creating operational output analysis for a well-known firm. It was during the recession, I had seen many people let go; I had witnessed many changes over the three years. For some reason, as I thought of my approaching birthday, I realized that my life was taking on a permanent structure, and developing into a habit and schedule that would dictate my future. It became clear that if I didn’t have the courage to change its quickly-shaping mold, I could very easily have a life that didn’t fully satisfy me and would ignore a calling I felt deeply. I definitively decided to join the Indicorps fellowship about a year ago, in hopes to create a life path that lay more closely to the foundation and values with which I was raised. Partnered with Kutch Mahila Vikas Sangathan (KMVS), my Indicorps fellowship focuses on providing urban poor women a platform to empower themselves—primarily through livelihood means. As an organization, KMVS supports a women’s movement that has catalyzed gender and socio-economic transformation within areas of Kutch.
I remember the first morning we arrived in Bhuj — the city was blue with the inherent sleepiness of dawn. The peacefulness of the desert region is intoxicating, but also stubborn. It calmed my anxiety and created focus and purpose for me. I stepped in wanting to know it all — each granule of sand that makes up this desert region of Kutch.
Kutch is the largest and western-most district of the 26 zillas (districts) that compose Gujarat. The 2001 census estimates Kutch’s population at 1.5 million. Kutch is a fusion of migrants from Kathiawad (southwestern Gujarat), Marwad (southwestern Rajasthan), Sindh, Balochistan, Afghanistan and further. The eccentric ecology of the saline, marsh-desert, and the history of the land as one prone to earthquakes and droughts creates distinct challenges for the residents of Kutch. Most migration in Kutch occurs due to difficult ecological conditions’ that cause economic hardship for families. Thus, families move to urban areas with hopes of finding means to livelihood, not always realizing the difficulties that urban life imposes. Thirty percent of the total population is considered urban. After the devastating earthquake in 2001, the government created numerous free trade zones throughout Kutch, in an effort to attract businesses. More businesses did not necessarily mean more local employment as many Kutchis lacked the requisite skills and literacy. This consequently caused a large influx of workers from other areas of Gujarat and other bordering states within India and with it, a host of other problems (including alcohol abuse, etc).
Background of Partner Organization
KMVS is an organization, network, and movement of women’s groups, working towards the economic, social and political empowerment of (rural) poor women across Kutch. Over the past 21 years, KMVS has grown from a three person venture into a dynamic organization of more than 50 staff members, 15,000 rural members from 175 villages. It is part of the larger Kutch Nav Nirman Abhiyan network (a group of approximately 30 non-governmental organizations in Kutch), founded in 2001.
KMVS has created a decentralized organizational structure by forming local (village-level) women’s groups (Mahila Mandals), nurturing them to come together at the Taluka (block) level, and helping them create Sangathans (federations). Sangathan members have collaborated over a variety of issues including drinking water, health, literacy, land development, legal rights, craft production, education and training for Panchayati Raj (local village governance). The post-earthquake period proved to core KMVS staff that there was a need to develop 6 issue based knowledge cells to support the Sangathans and provide acquired tools through consultancy and/or trainings to other NGOs. These knowledge cells consist of Health, HRIDAY (Human Resources and Institutional Development Academy), Qasab (craft producer group), Media, Micro-Financing, and Panchayati Raj. The senior members of KMVS head each of the knowledge centers and form the main secretariat (administration) office.
In 2007, KMVS resolved to begin working in urban Bhuj, linking poor women with livelihood opportunities. Their first initiative –the Sakhi Mandal—employs over 100 women, under a Nirmal Gujarat government scheme, to collect household garbage. This program provides women with a safe and professional working situation.
A sea of maroon saris (their uniform) and smiles, the Sakhis are my surrogate family. Upon first meeting the Sakhis, I felt at home. They are a source of strength for me – they help me understand why I decided to come to India. I see the caste system as a challenge for them because they are Dalits. They were born into a society that doesn’t necessarily support breaking caste barriers or goals outside of what their limited societies (consisting of their slum-communities, families and other people within their given caste) assess as appropriate achievements — which stems into education, livelihood, lifestyle etc. Daily challenges vary for the women as they come from various backgrounds and are many different ages; but as women they feel the pressures of Indian women—constantly cooking, cleaning and caring for their families. They also all come from slums, and therefore resources (water, light, gutters, etc.) are always challenges, as well as issues of domestic violence and safety. At work, their major challenge is having people change their mindset about waste and seeing them as helpful instead of a hindrance to their old habits.
In truth, I feel that my community includes all of urban Bhuj—not just my colleagues, my host family, or my neighborhood. It entails people I meet in shared rickshaws, people I share sidewalk with, and people from whom I buy my daily fruit. I have learned that development affects every sector of society and that our target audience is not just urban, marginalized women, but also their families, societies and overall citizens and culture of Bhuj. If one of the cruxes of development is changing mindsets, it is important to understand how we, as humans coexisting, affect each other’s mindsets.
Project Focus and Implementation
I have been fortunate enough to live in two communities thus far, Ganeshnagar, a community of Rabaaris, and Odhov Shrushti, a middle class, earthquake re-location society. Rabaaris are traditionally pastoralists, however many have exchanged their migratory/village lifestyle for urban communities, and their traditional occupation of cattle-herding and raising for occupations as house maids and private car drivers in Bhuj.
Ganeshnagar does not have access to water or gutters. Families are left to hire costly tankers and store water, or wait for the unreliable piped water for a few hours approximately every five days. Another major challenge is female education. Most girls only attend school until the 7th standard, and then inherit their mothers’ profession of housekeeping. Approximately 20 people (in 1000 resident) have completed 10th grade; only one is female. Many customs still remain prevalent: women provide laborious embroidery work as part of their dowry; many marriages are still arranged at the time of birth.
In November, I lead a team in conducting a case study on the migration of Rabaari women in Ganeshnagar for a panel at the Center for Women’s Development Studies. I conducted focus group discussions with different age groups and personal interviews. The field research suggested that the Rabaari community moved as families. Group migration created a safe haven, but also made it harder to assimilate to true urban life. They were satisfied with their lives – not needing or wanting more – because everyone around them had what they had and looked like them. They were complacent about having no running water, gutters, or a proper school in their community. They were complacent with the fact that their children grew up to be drivers and housekeepers. Many are satisfied with access to food and shelter; and thus lack a desire to change. Only the women seem to insist on putting in bathrooms, or further schooling.
During my time in Ganeshnagar, I felt most involved with my community when I held creative workshops for children. Each session was planned with a theme – from understanding themselves to making Diwali cards. I noticed two significant things – most kids were free during the day because they do not attend tuition like other well-off children their age, and that they had not been taught to think on their own.
In Odhov Shrushti, a recently built, middle class community on the outskirts of Bhuj. There is absolutely no system for waste management, no planning on how people opt to dispose of garbage or facilities for them to use. The residents seem apathetic. Families burn their trash in empty plots across the street from their homes. The burning of trash impacts cows who eat in the plots, children who play cricket in them, and everyone who breaths the burning fumes. I organized a committee of women in this area to create a waste management strategy, coordinate with cow herders, set up waste collection systems and to hopefully reuse, recycle and reduce. Through this committee, Odhov Shrushti now has a municipal dumpster, although not everyone uses it. I am in the process of understanding how to inspire people to change such practices.
I have had an opportunity to help transition the Sakhi program from a strictly livelihood-base to a platform where women take leadership, learn soft skills, and become change makers for their own areas and issues. I spent time shadowing and understanding the door-to-door system, its issues, concerns, and areas where improvements and efficiency could be achieved. For weeks, I assisted the Sakhis in their daily lives, and learned from the staff members on different aspects of this project. I found it imperative for me to really become an integrated part of the team before I suggested any changes. Once I became a member of the team, I suggested ways in which leaders in the group could be given additional responsibility, moving much of the administrative duties, such as attendance and meeting monitors (someone to keep order during meetings) away from our staff. This allowed NGO employees to focus on different areas of expansion within the project. The need for more process driven procedures lead me to create a monitoring format and book where staff members record the areas/which Sakhi’s route they have monitored on a given day and relevant details related to which houses do not provide trash versus which houses the Sakhi did not visit. I also created “new Sakhi forms” which are to be completed upon their first month of working with us. It contains all basic information allowing us to have a clearly documented group of women, and the appropriate information to link them with any relevant opportunities which could help them achieve their goals.
While improving income generation for the Sakhis is central to my project, I have dabbled in various different urban livelihood and environmental projects – applying my skill-set from my prior experience, to the various projects. Through it all, I have realized it is the interaction and ability to potentially connect people to opportunities to achieve their goals that excites me.
This outlook has allowed me to more clearly perceive what people need and want from me/our projects without needing them to tell me exactly what they need or want. In this way I understand more about people and can come to an understanding automatically. I am also always interested in having a conversation with anyone — to understand their perspectives and perhaps share my own. This attitude has led me to co-create children’s environmental awareness programs for local schools, with an AIF fellow in Bhuj. We have developed a one-hour, interactive presentation that quizzes kids knowledge, teaches them about their own city and the garbage it generates, and finally asks them to take a role in changing habits by participating in a 20-micron plastic bags collection competition with other classes in their standard. 20-micron plastic bags are not recyclable; however we have teamed up with a craft NGO, Khamir, who produces recycled crafts from the plastic bags. Our hopes are to change the mindsets of the younger generations and have them slowly influence their parents and elders.
My experiences and year would not be what it is without the presence of my NGO, and the Indicorps family. They have allowed me to enter their various lifestyles and made me feel like a part of the organization(s) and their missions. Naturally, I am constantly thinking of how I can not only learn from the breadth of people, but also help them achieve their own goals–whether it is learning English, or helping them plan sessions, or discussing their dreams and goals and action steps to achieving their goals.
Over the remainder of the year, I am spearheading an in-depth study to assess women’s health, economic, education, political, migration, and social situations in the slums of Bhuj. Based on my findings, I will link women with the appropriate resources and organizations. Furthermore, the data that will be extracted from this study will allow KMVS to focus its work on the most important issues women face within slums, instead of being donor-driven.
In my free time I would like I would like to incorporate the different departments of KMVS into urban development and employ them to give trainings — such as health, money management, understanding the government systems and women’s rights. I would also like to provide Sakhis with environment awareness training. For anyone to take ownership there has to be interest and passion in the subject matter. I believe assisting them to change their roles within this system will be better transitioned if they enjoy being part of this group. In the next month, I would like to raise morale by employinga “Sakhi of the Month” program, which –honors one Sakhi per month based on performance, attitude, etc. I would also like to organize a “cleanest slum” competition monitored by project staff. Engaging the project staff in such competitions will require more hands -on engagement and increase their bonds with these communities.
What I feel most passionately about is having Sakhis voices heard through different art forms. I would like to run a series of sessions with the women surrounding art and media communication. After they are comfortable with the mediums I will ask them to create posters that relate to issues they feel are important to them; domestic violence, health, education, environment etc. I have seen the resilience and strength of these women, I have seen them in big groups, proud and confident. I believe their grace is a testament to their personal strength as well as the love and support they receive from KMVS mentors. I want to extend this feeling of support and awareness so they can impact other women’s (and men) lives that don’t have the same platform. Ideally, I would like to have a poster competition and have the winner’s poster be displayed on a billboard in Bhuj.
I have grown in numerous ways over the past six months, primarily because I have stripped myself of many unnecessary things. Things I labeled as “gross” or “necessary” before no longer bother me; no longer take up mental space. What I do notice is that there is a thirst once again to learn, to keep improving, to be more. Indicorps, and my time thus far with KMVS, has pushed me to create a vision for my life. So much of what we discuss is about our vision for development, our vision for self-help groups, or vision for our day. It made me realize that if I create a vision for my life I can better utilize all of the opportunities that life provides me with, and also be focused in giving back.
Everything seems more real, the depth of the world, the realness of hurt and the unknown courage that has to be utilized, even when we don’t feel like it. I see it every day. I see it in the women we work with, I realize it from past actions, and I hear it in other fellow’s voices. I had thought that reading, or vacationing in developing areas opened my eyes, but it isn’t until I spent three weeks fighting the municipality for water — to bath, to drink, to clean dishes that I could understand what other people experienced. It isn’t until I spent time trying to help a woman who is slowly losing control over her body get diagnosed, that I knew some people are ignored because of their economic status; that some people are just not a priority even though they smile through tears. It isn’t until I spent months trying to have women of a lower caste hired that I realized that some modern-day obstacles are created by the caste system. And it isn’t until I actually heard first-hand of how a woman was burnt by her husband that I truly realized that, in some people’s eyes, a woman is a disposable commodity. It wasn’t until I and twenty other fellows spent a day rag picking that I realized how people are subject to increased health risks. It wasn’t until I lived off a very controlled stipend that I realized that some people don’t even want luxurious opportunities. I have found myself learning to enjoy life, to let go and appreciate the beauty that surrounds me.
For as long as I can remember I have always been curious – always questioning. I remember each trip to Mumbai, to visit my family that I wondered about slums-communities: Why do people live there? How do they live there and what are their goals? This year has pushed me far beyond those questions because I no longer see “them,” I see “us.” I don’t feel upset that people live in slums, I try to look for solutions we can implement; because change for you won‘t come from me – it will come from you.
My concept of development in itself has changed; I don’t think that development rests in third-world countries, at non-profit organizations, and government offices. Development starts from within; it is self awareness and responsibility.
Asha Gandhi, August 2009 Indicorps Fellow