On Saturday, I go to Nadukuppam, 30 km from Auroville, where the Pitchandikulam Bio Resource Center (PBRC) runs a 600-student high school for grades 6 to 12. PBRC has developed an environmental education center with the “ultimate aim to restore biodiversity in the region through student participation.” As I am volunteering with Pitchandilkulam Forest, they thought it would be a good idea for me to see how they have brought this local village school from one with a 10% high school pass rate to one who now has over 70% of its senior body graduating.
Before we tour the school however we first meet with the local women’s self-help group. As soon as I step off the bus I meet Kavitha, who is at once a social worker and marketer of the women’s work. She believes that you cannot just teach people how to make things you need to also teach them how to sell. One of the first projects she shows me is the Spirulina project, also sponsored by Pitchandikulam. Spirulina is a natural algae with incredible nutritional components. According to holisitic website LifePositive, “Japanese scientists look towards Spirulina as the solution to the world’s hunger problem. NASA considers it an excellent, compact space food for astronauts. The WHO has called it one of the greatest super foods on earth.” For the village women in Nadukuppam, who are farming the algae in the large cement pools, they are trying to eradicate childhood malnutrition using the superfood.
After watching the women scoop out pails of the wet green algae, we head over to the community center, where we are greeted by the women’s self-help group, a circle of 20 women who come to discuss local problems and solutions. We have heard much of these women’s self-help groups but this is the first time I am meeting one. Some of the women participate in the Spirulina project, others make purses and jewelry to sell in local shops. They are all motivated to solve the ongoing issues that poverty presents in their lives.
We start the conversation by discussing the recent rapes in Delhi (which has been reported on worldwide) and a local one just two days before in Pondicherry where a minor girl was kidnapped from a bus and raped. This violence goes against so many of their culture’s traditions that the women are bewildered by what is happening to their community. As one women explains in Tamil, “We don’t understand why men are doing this to these young girls. Is it because they are going to school? Women used to be so protected, only staying in the home, but now they are working, they are going into the cities. Is this why they are being hurt?”
It is a good question, with implications that affect not just the Indian population. As Hanna Rosin writes in her 2012 book The End of Men, “For the first time in history, the global economy is becoming a place where women are finding more success than men.” Much like in America in the 1970s, overnight the traditional roles of man and woman in India have been replaced by a new paradigm. And though it is one many of us are hugely grateful for, there has been very little preparation or education around how it affected us as a culture – either American, Indian, German, or Phillipino. The world has changed with very little warning.
India is seeing the consequences of this shift, even when some of it is for the better. The women all express confusion over living between their traditions and that of the modern world. Together, we discuss not just the problems of India but problems that affect all societies: poverty, alcoholism, the destruction of traditional societies, even the widespread use of pornography due to the use of smartphones. The women are at first shy but as our group, made up of six Australians and myself, begin to talk about the issues in our own countries, the women become more open. The men are asked to leave the conversation when we begin discussing even more intimate issues: menstruation and sex education.
As most women in rural India are not told anything about either topic until it happens to them, many of the women don’t know what to say. We are using two translators but even then the conversation is stilted until one of the Australians admits that when she first got her period she cried. When the women hear this they begin to open up, finally asking us how we feel right before we get our period. We end up going around the group, each sharing our experience about monthly menstruation, agreeing on the cramps and fatigue, and laughing about the bad moods.
We break for lunch, after which the Australians and I head over to the school to teach a brief English class. I watch the children, some of whom act so confident and self-assured, having already found their position on the top of the pecking order. And then there are the quiet ones. Most of these are the boys, who are greatly outnumbered in this class of 15 girls to 4 boys. The girls are taking over the world, that much is sure, but as the boys stand to the side, nervous and shy as the girls shout out all the answers, I worry about the boys’ futures.
We return to the women’s groups to see some of the jewelry they’re making (and to buy some as well), we are now all comfortably laughing and talking with each other, even if our translator has to help with the conversation. The women no longer stand shyly back as they show us the sewing machines they are using to stich handbags and the process by which they make the jewelry. They are the future leaders of India but as researcher Joti Sekhon reports regarding women’s self help groups: “Though effective change takes place over a long period of time, many traditional political and cultural attitudes and practices [have] been challenged, and a process of change [is] underway in these village.” I can only hope that somehow we find a safe and solid place for our men throughout these changes.
By Kristen McGuiness, AUP