Where do I start? Yesterday we visited a rural village called Padevadu where we met with an organization that has developed dozens of projects in an effort to help rural villages become self sustainable. Projects include developing a water filtration system so that people have clean water for daily use, using banana leaves to make crafts to sell, and organizing women self help groups to empower and expand their place in society. We visited a school and interacted with the high school children in classrooms. They had never seen Americans before and commented that our faces were all so different, and they persistently took pictures of us on their cell phones and asked for our autographs. They shared with us that they wanted to be pilots, doctors, engineers, military, and scientists.
As Raji shared, these regions used to believe that the only way to success was through engineering so growing up, she would often only hear that people wanted to be doctors or engineers. It shows evolution that the kids know that there are other possibilities. We had a “sumptuous” (the locals use that word often) traditional South Indian lunch with a variety of dishes served on a banana leaf and eaten with our (right) hand. What moved me the most, was when we met with the self help groups. There were probably a dozen women there, sitting directly facing us on the floor mats we were provided and about half of them eagerly, proudly shared their success stories. These women were each leading a group of about 15 other women. Each group had a project that was helping them earn. For instance one woman shared that she used to only have 10 Rs (appx 25₵) a day when she first started her work and now she is able to make 5000 Rs and even help other women finance their own project. Their ability to earn has changed their lives dramatically. Some of these women were once unable to even cross the street to shop at a farmer’s market and now they can move about the town with some freedom. One woman’s casually stated that her day to day life has changed in that before she was earning, her husband used to beat her but now he leaves her alone. Like Jason said, these women give “self help” a whole new meaning.
Each woman was so proud and eager to share their story. They passed around 8 plaques showing us their state awards for their work. These stories show that when women organize and create a community, the possibilities are limitless. The women we’ve met thus far have strong voices (figuratively and literally) and are truly an inspiration.
Afterthoughts – I had a conversation the other night with a Korean American student. After revisiting the culture of Korea while being in India, I returned to the idea earning potential in women. There is just so much power behind it. It appears that one commonality characteristic of cultures who adhere to traditional gender roles is that it is becoming a marital “problem” that women are gaining financial independence. Living in the US provides some distance from seeing exactly how privileged American women are in exercising their right to earn while many countries, both developed and undeveloped, are still striving to get there. These panders excite and inspire me as well as make me sad. I am so humbled by women’s ability to emancipate themselves but also saddened by the lifetimes of people living in fear of a woman’s success.