This is Clare Rutz reporting from Chennai, India.
India is a paradox. There is the modern, wealthy, and educated side, but then there is the side where women are married off at the age of fourteen, living in slums, and allowed to leave only in their husband’s company. I managed to experience both extremes of India, but the latter version was the bit that added some shock value to my trip. I will never again under appreciate the Women’s Rights Movement and what was accomplished in order for me to be viewed as an equal.
In India too there are those who are making vital efforts to give women their rights, while creating awareness about gender issues. Domestic violence is not uncommon in India, and as I was trying to dig a little deeper into this societal issue, an Indian woman fighting to stop abuse explains to me that, “India’s culture holds family as a sacred thing, so women understand that violence is wrong, but when her husband hits her its not something that you go against”.
I met this woman and many others working towards the same mission at The Center for Women’s Development and Research. The non-profit rents out an apartment in Chennai and somehow cram a staff of more than twenty into the tiny space. The Center works with the women in fishing villages outside of the city where loans are allocated to start businesses and vocational training is also provided. I was invited to attend a meeting where a handful of the women affected by these programs come and talk about their progress and obstacles. We meet in a small room with three computers lining the wall which the women take classes on to learn basic computer skills.
The discussion begins, and they look to me for a question. GlobalGiving funded a project that provided services to the children of these women in this room after the tsunami hit. So I ask, “How has your life today changed because of the tsunami?” Apparently I just asked an easy question. They all begin answering at the same time, but the translation encompasses all their concerns. “The fish are gone. We have no work.” Donor countries respond quickly and generously to a crisis, but after that initial relief we often forget how lasting the effects of such a natural disaster can be.
The vocational training became an instant success after the wives could no longer sell fish at the market. The women needed to create a good that could be sold in order to fill that void created by the tsunami. That’s where The Center for Women’s Development and Research comes in. We continue to talk about the crafts they’ve learned and why the computer classes are beneficial, but the more interesting bit came after the official meeting was over.
All the women gathered around the door trying to speak with the director. The voice of the group began in a confrontational tone, and so I quickly asked my translator what she was saying. The products were being made, but the demand for handmade paper bags was just not there. “Why can’t we export?” was the question that needed answering. Without the issue being thoroughly addressed we all piled back into the van and I asked the director, “So why can’t you export?” Turns out there are lots of reasons. Firstly, the consistency of quality is lacking and a much larger quantity needs to be produced for the goods to be exported.
Microfinancing has received an overwhelming positive response from the developing world, but with every new policy there are flaws. Flaws that fortunately can be addressed, but many new projects are only now introducing microfinancing because of the buzz, and the details haven’t been worked out quite yet. These women are willing to work hard and responsibly, but to have a vocational skill is one thing, and to have the skills of an entrepreneur is another. Is it the new expected role for these non-profits such as The Center for Women’s Development and Research to act as a business by collecting their goods and distributing them where there is a demand?
The Center’s accomplishments are clear in regards to gender rights, but it has also left me with many thoughts about the much talked about microfinance boom. We’re on the right track by giving tools rather than food, but the details that will vary in every community need to be addressed.
When asked what she would tell her friends about this project, Clare said: "Good project."