Friday, March 13, 2009


last week, i went to the field with an organization doing work in Kanakapura, about an hour south of Bangalore. the folks at the org conducted a survey in the villages of this area to ask individuals (mostly women) what barriers they feel to accessing healthcare. the resounding response was income -- many of these women have lost their husbands to HIV/AIDS, and since villages carry high rates of illiteracy and it is highly unusual in Indian rural life for a widow to remarry, they have not only lost their husbands but their sole source of income. as a result, many widows (some of whom are my age or even younger than me) turn to prostitution for income, which thereby continues the spread of the disease and can take their lives as well.

the organization has responded with, among other projects, an income generation model. the most impoverished women were identified, as well as the widows, and collected in each of 3 villages to create artisan businesses. the intent is to relay a skill to the widows, provide them with clients and income, in the hopes that the businesses can be sustainable someday. clients place their orders from the central org in B'lore, and its employees deliver the orders as well as the supplies necessary to complete them. the hope is to move to complete independence, from taking orders to keeping stock to tracking down (and purchasing) supplies for each village enterprise.

the first village we visited, Oochally, houses a group of women learning beadwork and embroidery skills. they are currently working on orders for saris, handbags, journals and even quilts. the youngest of the three enterprises, this village project has only been up and running for a year and a half. the number of challenges facing them had honestly never occurred to me before. simple barriers intensely slow down the learning curve -- the women have never been educated, are quite illiterate, and therefore cannot count. this also means that they cannot measure, or keep tally of their stock as they make it. and while simply teaching them to count and measure sounds ideal, it is in practice far more difficult to achieve. there are also issues of extremely limited infrastructure available within the city, electricity issues, holidays, management, and more other challenges than i can relay in one sitting.

the second village, Hosur, houses women working on block printing of saris, shirts, shawls, you name it! although these women have been working for about double the time as those in Oochally (around 3 years), their work thoroughly impressed me. i will certainly be placing an order of my own someday soon! perhaps in part to their extremely shrewd manager (also a native of the area) compared with the managers in the other villages, this group functions like a well oiled machine. it is in fact hard to find enough orders to keep them busy! they just completed a huge order for a wedding, and even completed that successfully. not to mention that the work is truly beautiful... i kicked myself repeatedly for forgetting my camera. it also went a long way to demonstrate that the strength of the women's skills can only be as good as those of the manager :)

the final village, Kodihalli, houses women working on paper products -- notepads, greeting cards and even wedding invitations. as the oldest project in the income generation initiative, these women have perfected their art. they make their paper from scratch (so it's 100% recycled!). they dye them, cut them, bind them, add accents... very impressive. what completely floored me about this group is their internal organization. the other two groups complete tasks as dictated by their manager. this group is so self-sufficient that they have organized themselves without a third party even needing to suggest who should do what. they have itemized every part of their product-making process, and divyed up the tasks according to natural skill. after seeing the challenges facing the newer projects, i cannot stress how intensely impressive this self-management is! the only barrier facing this group currently is acquiring clients... something all those involved are hoping to address in the near future.

it is worth pointing out that while these enterprises were started to create income, and therefore increase potential to afford healthcare and offer an alternative to prostitution.... many of the women are still resorting to either extra-marital affairs or prostitution without payment. shockingly, by receiving income elsewhere, the only perceivable change in sexual action has been removing the need for payment. i suppose there is an awfully intimate / loving / supportive aspect to sexual relations that having an income cannot replace, given that these women cannot remarry. but because such well-intentioned and inspirational projects are in fact doing little to curb the proliferation of AIDS within the villages, it definitely leaves me feeling exasperated. the bulk of these problems are so insanely complex that it might take the entirety of my time here to navigate them. which means i've definitely made the right decision by coming :)

you may have noticed that while this work was intended to address health access problems, it has travelled in a very different path since. as interesting as i found textiles and artisanry to be, it was certainly not what i came here looking for. granted, issues of gender emplowerment and education and other broader issues of interest are hidden within there. but it is fairly obvious that this line of work is a pretty big departure from my previous path, and my intended path here. i would say that an equivalent challenge has appeared in literally every organigzation i was speaking to before i came. there have been SO many factors that i have been rather blindsided by since arriving and learning more about all of these orgs -- as i said to my parents, there seem to be many many options.... but whether any can be described as a GOOD option still remains to be seen. it really depends on how willing i am to stray from access to medicines for infectious disease, how important immediate impact may be, and a variety of other challenges i had no way of predicting while still in Canada.

suffice it to say, the jobhunt has been exhausting! and at times demoralizing... but at other times, inspiring. i think i have my mind sorted out on where i would most like to work, and for now it is full speed ahead on that route! i shall keep y'all posted. in the meantime, tomorrow i'm off to Tumkur for more field time with another org. more stories to come -- have a great weekend, y'all :)

1 comment:

Kavita said...

Wow. It's crazy to think that something as simple as counting has to be... learned. It seems to me like it would be instinctual. But then again, why are we so obsessed about how MUCH of something we have? How interesting that that is learned behavior!