Sahodran and LGBTQ+ Rights in India

Ari Price

During the expansive world HIV and AIDS crisis in the 1980’s, Sahodran was established in South India. While it was one of many Non-Government Organizations created to educate society about HIV and AIDS, it was unique from other organizations. Sahodran, also known as the Sahodran Community Oriented Health Development (SCHOD) Society, specifically targeted the education, support and advocacy of men who have sex with men, as this population had a higher risk for acquiring HIV due to a lack of safe sex practices and support. As they only worked with men in the beginning, they decided on the name Sahodran, which means brother in the local language, Tamil. Presently, the SCHOD society has drop-in centers in both Chennai and Puducherry to aid in the education and peer support of all LGBTQ+ persons who face discrimination in the state of Tamil Nadu, India. Since 1988 Sahodran has continued to expand and provide interventions at the individual, community and national level. They currently work with a variety of professionals and volunteers including physicians, advocates, academics and researchers. According to staff, approximately 130 people were served in 2003 whereas about 1233 people were served last year. This shows the community demand for services continues to be necessary and to grow.

MEMBERS OF SAHODRAN AT THE LOCAL 2018 LGBT PRIDE MARCH

The work the Sahodran is taking on is not easy, but it is immeasurably beneficial not just for the LGBTQ+ community, but the society at large. In terms of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals for , SCHOD aims first and foremost to promote the goal of good health and wellbeing, but it does this while also addressing the goals of gender equality and reduced inequalities for those in the LGBTQ+ community. Since their inception, they have continued to see progress for equality in the Indian society, at least in part due to their national advocacy efforts. Beyond the decreased rate of HIV and AIDS in the Tamil Nadu area, SCHOD has also seen the recent overturn of section 377 of the India Penal Code a law in 2018, which criminalized intercourse between men and the national recognition of a third gender, transgender, in 2014. While these policy changes are steps in the right direction, the staff at the Puducherry branch of Sahodran informed AUP students that there was still no policy to promote and protect LGBTQ+ peoples in cases of discrimination and definitely no marriage or family law in place for LGBTQ+ couples. As time moves forward they hope to see a society that understands, supports, and cares for all of its people, regardless of HIV status or LGBTQ+ Identity.

Eco Femme: Changing the Relationship between Women and Their Periods!

By Sanna Rasmussen

Have you ever wondered what is the difference between an NGO, for-profit business, and social enterprise? NGO’s are non-profit organizations whose aim is to help a community in need. A for-profit business is a company whose goal is to make a profit and accrue capital. A social enterprise is somewhat a combination of the two. Located in Auroville, Eco Femme is a social enterprise that produces and sells re-usable sanitary napkins, also known as menstrual pads, while simultaneously supporting the community of women who are behind the production. More than that, Eco Femme has created development programs, connected to the global consumption of their products, which educate women about menstrual hygiene in rural villages around India.

Around the world, many women choose to use disposable menstruation hygiene methods, as it has been marketed as being the normal, if not only option available. However, with increasing focus placed on the environmental impact of single-use plastic, menstruation hygiene has a place within this dialogue. Disposable sanitary pads and tampons are made of plastic that cannot be recycled, therefore, after the six-eight hour viable life span, these plastic products sit in the landfill for over 800 years before beginning to break down. Clearly the women of the world have been shown a norm that does not benefit anyone besides big industry; the giants who produce all of these single use products. Although pollution is a global issue, India in particular is a country that is highly populated, where many women do not have access to menstrual hygiene. In 2000, in a quest to redesign how women in India engage and manage their periods, Eco Femme was created.

Eco Femme’s re-usable menstrual pads are fabricated from layers of organic cotton, which is sourced in Tamil Nadu, India. They produce four varieties of pads; heavy night, day plus, day regular, and panty liner. The nighttime pad is made with seven layers of cloth, the day plus with six, the day regular with five, and the liner with three. All pads include a finishing cloth layer that is coated with poly urethane and is anti-leak. The pads are made with wings that have a snap, so that they fascine around the underwear and do not move while being worn. Once the pad is soiled, or for means of transporting it, the pad can be discreetly folded and fastened with the snap from the wings to create a small square of fabric.

Eco_Femme_2_1024x1024

For the logistics of cleaning the cloth pads, Eco Femme harnessed the power of mother earth. Once the pad is soiled, the wearer is to soak it in cold water and then hang to dry under the sun, which acts as a natural disinfectant. That being said, the pads are also machine washable.

In every step of the supply chain, the cloth pads are produced by women from villages near Bangalore and Auroville, India. The empowerment of women is a pillar of Eco Femme’s mission, and has led them to function as a social enterprise, with two developmental programs; Pad for Pad, and Pad for Sisters. Pad for pad involves international customers of Eco Femme, where for every pad bought, a pad is sponsored for an economically disadvantaged girl in rural India. Up to date, over 10,000 girls have been sponsored. Pad for Sisters is a program that subsidizes pads between 50 and 80 Rupees. On average, Pad for Sisters subsidizes 1,500 pads a month.

According to Eco Femme’s co-founder, Kathy, re-usable cloth menstruation pads have acted as a trojan horse by opening the once taboo dialogue around what menstruation is, and how women can understand it. Eco Femme promotes the message that women and girls should feel empowered by their periods, and embody all that it means to go through the transformative change of the body. Through the work of their development programs, Eco Femme is a model of what a social enterprise can do to benefit a community, while still engaging in a competitive business market. Eco Femme re-usable pads can be purchased in Auroville, throughout India, and on their website directly.

Eco-Femme-P4P-for-website.jpg

The first field note…

16.12.17 Rubini & the Samugam Foundation 

by Dorothea Mursch-Edlmayr

We’ve started our second day in India with our first yoga session on the roof of our Guesthouse Mitra at 7 in the morning, before we took the bus to Pondicherry. On this Saturday we had four NGO visits schedule. The ride to Pondicherry – such a loud, crowded, colorful and culturally different place and the overall heat – was overwhelming. We were confronted with the real Indian experience already. And then we stopped at our first NGO, the Samugam Foundation. I was so fascinated with the city trying to absorb everything I saw, that I didn’t mentally prepare myself for the Samugam Foundation. So I stepped out of the bus and was completely surprised by the children that were waiting for us. They grabbed our hands, talked to us, introduced themselves, hugged us and pointed at different things. It happened so quickly and suddenly every one of us got picked by a child, taken by the hand and accompanied to the house they live and get educated in.

PC160062.jpg

Rubini (r.) and one of her friends

My girl was Rubini. She is 6 years old and wore a beautiful blue dress, my favorite color. She was smiling the whole time and was full of energy and excitement. She showed me the kitchen, the bedroom, the music room, she introduced me to her friends and taught me a clapping-singing game that they all love to play. She seemed happy and like a normal child. Although we didn’t speak the same language we communicated through gestures, pointing at things and facial expressions and hand signs. We spent 20 minutes together before she showed me my seat in the room we were about to hear a presentation from the founder of the Samugam Foundation.

This nonprofit organization gives shelter to the gypsy, street and poor children, providing them with a home, food, education, sanitarian care and overall protection with the mission of giving them a chance to become a part of the society. These children grow up in poverty and misery facing illness and death because of non-existing hygiene standards concerning food and body care, being unaware of their destiny because of a lack of education. This NGO tries to give the children a chance for a better life. I was sitting in this room, watching the videos about gipsy children eating dirty food from the dump, living so close to this polluted area being excluded from society with no possibility for a change. It was hard to take and almost overshadowed the fun playful 20 minutes with Rubini. She was one of them and I felt very helpless. My eyes were wandering around in the presentation room and suddenly I saw a quote by Ghandi on the wall that gave me hope in this moment of brutal reality; “only through education we can change the world”. Inequality and unfairness exist and there is no sense in being upset with the world how it is, we just need to keep this words in mind and help the people through education to change their destiny towards a better one. I went back to the bus with gratitude for my life and hope for Rubini and all the other beautiful children that welcomed us so friendly at our first NGO visit in India.

PC160071.JPG

Read more about the Samugam Foundation on their website: http://www.samugam.org

A Day With Disposable Cameras

By: Beatriz Salgado

 

My day started out with the usual morning breakfast at Morgan’s, scrambled eggs with toast and milk coffee. Then, I went to the Matrimandir for the first time, one of the most intriguing experiences yet, but I’ll leave that for another blog entry.

I’ve had an idea for my personal project before I even left for India. Working with children in Brazil and establishing a genuine relationship was always something I felt passionate about. So, my idea was basically to get children to walk around Auroville and take photos of something, I hadn’t really thought about what that something was until I started volunteering at Wasteless. I mentioned my idea with Rihbu, the organization’s founder, and thought he could help. He really liked the idea and thought it could be great if the project complemented Wasteless’ new educational program kNOw PLASTICS. Together we decided the kids would take pictures of plastics. They were to think about where they got their plastics? How did they use plastics? And where they threw their plastics away?

wastelesskids.jpg

I had already been to Aikiyam School the day before to observe the pilot testing for Wasteless’ new educational program, so I had met the principal of the school, Shankar and he said I could meet with the kids on Saturday afternoon. The next day, I got all my gear, which included three disposable cameras, a laptop, water bottle, my journal, and a charger and headed for Kulapalyum Road. While I waited for Shankar to confirm, I had a delicious lunch at Frites with my classmate Imani and later coffee and brownie at Marc’s café, an indispensable place to drink coffee while in Auroville.

Finally, I heard from Shankar and walked to Aikiyam School under the hot afternoon sun, not to mention it was winter. I went to the science room where the teacher and students were doing extracurricular work and waiting for my arrival. They usually have some activities during the weekends to keep the students busy. Before heading out for our photography exploration, I decided to talk to some of the students and interview them about plastics. Though they were a bit shy in the beginning, I was surprised by how much they knew about the issue.

To start our photography hunt, I divided them in groups, two girls, Deepa (13 years old), Roshini (13 years old) and two boys, Chandru (14 years old) and Chander (13 years old). Later, we met up with two other students, Arjun (13 years old) and Thiru (13 years old) who decided to join our expedition. I gave each group one disposable camera and explained to them the objective of taking the pictures.

wastelesskids2

The purpose of the assignment was to take photographs of plastics in their point of view by keeping in mind the three questions mentioned above. As soon as we stepped out of the school, they immediately started taking pictures of the waste they found right outside the school: plastic bottles, bags and even a CD! We walked along the main road and headed towards Kulapalyum village where the kids lived. As we strolled around, the students entered different shops and interacted with people explaining to them what they were doing and why they were taking photos of plastics. Then, we started heading to each of their homes. What was interesting to observe were the different perspectives they had on what was clean and dirty. One of the questions was if they thought where they lived was a little, medium or a lot dirty. Most of them answered little or medium and that it’s sometimes clean and sometimes dirty. I remember thinking, ok, so they live someplace decent. I was wrong though, what was surprising was their notion of somewhere clean turned out to be a completely different conception from my reality.

wastelesskids4

During the interview, they all answered that they threw their trash and plastics in dustbins in their homes and that they don’t throw waste on the streets. One student even said they separated organics from non-organics at his house and that after it was separated, the “people that do the duty comes to pick it up” (Arjun).

The small comfort that I did have, despite seeing those kids’ environment and their reality, was that they were still being kids and had so much fun taking photos with a simple disposable camera.

meandthekids

Eating With Your Hands

By Sam McKeown

Upon an aluminum plate sits a fragrant mélange of bottle squash kootu, vegetable curry, and seasoned rice. My belly rumbles from the scents of mustard seed, onion, turmeric, and coriander powder that perfume the air. My colleagues and I sit patiently upon the wood floor awaiting the completion of the prayer. Under the supervision of Devi, head of the Life Education Center, we’ve prepared our meal with careful consideration for the three doshas—pita (fire), kapha (water), and vhata (air). In traditional South Indian cuisine, each meal is meant to combine ingredients that help balance the dosha within the body, thus attaining both physical and spiritual balance.

By participating in the preparation of our meal, we’ve not only exchanged laughs, techniques, and stories, but also a small piece of our personal culture. For some, cooking represents a reflection of the self, a means for us to share small, non-verbal pieces of information of our personal journeys. Where did you learn to salt the water before you boil it? Why do you cook the onions first? Why do you use sunflower oil versus olive oil? For others, cooking is a source of anxiety, an exploration of opposing elements that threaten at any moment to taint the flavor of your meal and thus your self-representation. In a broader sense, cooking is a codification of collective values that has been and is continually reinforced generation after generation. Regardless of what cooking means for you, it can unanimously be considered a form of communication. An equally important form of non-verbal communication, however, is eating.

Upon my aluminum plate sits a small, plastic spoon. I glace around the room and notice that our Tamil hosts aren’t eating with the spoons, but rather their hands. Despite having eaten with my hands several times during the course of my stay in Auroville, there’s always a brief moment of anxiety before I begin. Being American and having seen a few different parts of the world, South India has been the first time I’ve experienced the culturally normative practice of eating with your hands. But what drives the fear behind this interaction with food? Is it fear of being thought of as messy, as I inevitably get rice on my nose every time I eat with my hands? Is it that most Western cultures have effectively created an implicit fear to the sense of touch in eating through reinforcing the use of utensils? Or is it simply a fear of trying something new? Perhaps it is a combination of the three. I take a breath and dig my hand, specifically my right, into the rice that has been doused in curry and kootu, scoop, and eat. The texture is both foreign and familiar at the same time, a texture I expected but still can’t necessarily put into words. It’s not slimy; it’s not hard or rough; it’s possibly a little sticky and creamy.  I glance around the room again and realize that not a single person has reacted to the rice that has clung itself to my right nostril. What has seemed to me a personal victory of overcoming neophobia to others is the simple act of eating.

When interacting with cultures inherently different than our own, eating is a meta-lingual exchange that can reveal an underlying dialogue. By picking up the spoon, I’ve reinforced my own culture and therefore my otherness from my hosts. By eating with my hands, there is the removal of a small but noticeable barrier between my cultural subjectivity and acceptance. The flavors of the meal are strong but complementary, subtle hints of spice balanced with the tangy acidity of tamarind. Before I’ve  realized, my plate is completely empty, my belly is satisfied, and my doshas presumably balanced. A collective lull has settled over the group, one that seems to transcend conventional cultural boundaries—the ubiquitous satisfaction of a good meal.

Naturellement Café: A Love Experiment

By: Jon Daniel McKiever

This past week has been filled with meeting incredible individuals who are impassioned by the desire to improve the lives of those around them. Martina Ljungquist is one of these people as she embarked on a journey 26 years ago to empower the local Tamil women by establishing the Naturellement Café.

img_0277

From the Naturellement’s website, one can see the aims of the restaurant are to (1):

  1. Empower women from disadvantaged back grounds by providing them meaningful work.
  2. Engage in socially responsible and fair trade business practices.
  3. Support sustainable farming by using organic raw-material whenever possible.
  4. Provide natural handmade fine foods of the highest quality to our customers.

Martina’s quest has always been to “bring down into the matter, something higher. The question is, ‘how do you do that?’” This question inevitably led Martina to Auroville where she claims, “the startup of this company created itself and I’m always trying to catch up!” The rise of this social enterprise has allowed its workers to create a livelihood for themselves all while learning an array of skills from cooking to operational management for their restaurant.

img_0274It’s evident Naturellement’s success is due to the combination of Martina’s love for her workers and the motivation her love spurs within the ladies to generate a solid work ethic amongst the restaurant staff.

Martina makes it very clear she’s never been well versed in typical “business” operations but she actually began her career as a Kindergarten teacher! She’s an educator at the end of the day; yet, she’s using the café to educate and empower the local women through the lens of business.

img_0271                                           (Left: Tanya Elder, Right: Martina Ljungquist)

Through her past jobs, Martina learned how not to be a boss. She’s learned this and has applied to it be an effective manager for the Naturellement café. Her model for success is never benchmarked by maximizing profits. Instead, Martina’s desire for the well-being of her ladies if the focal point of the café.

“When your aim is to have maximum profits, you start making short cuts.” – Martina.

img_0279

Products for sale at Naturellement Café

img_0284

A shot of the café’s store

Her dedication to maintaining a sustainable supply chain while setting higher standards of living for her workers has established a more ethical approach to business operations. The company’s revenues are making a positive impact for the 35 ladies that are employed here today.

When “profit maximization” is removed from the worker’s mindset, it cultivates a more personable environment where the ladies are free to unwind and be themselves while working.

Her love for these women is evident as she elaborates on the various ways she strives to provide for these women. Some of her stories are more light-hearted as she illustrates how they all took a break last week to turn on a movie in the office during a work break. Her other stories are more serious as she expresses the difficulties she faced when she’s learned some of her employees have been beaten by their husbands.

According to the Times of India, around 60% of men throughout India admit to wife-beating. (2). While it’s shocking to learn these cruel and archaic practices are still prevalent throughout India, one can only imagine the ethical dilemma it creates between Martina and her ladies.

Martina is in a unique work environment where her business model is centered around the well-being of her employees. Thus, it may seem necessary to intervene as a manger when your employee is physically assaulted because it harms the core of this restaurant’s business structure. However, Martina is a Swedish entrepreneur who may come across as a “westerner” or “foreigner” to her employees’ husbands. What do you do when your good intentions to protect your employees conflicts with cultural norms that you were never born into?

This is a complex issue which Martina has artfully navigated throughout the years with her fellow workers. She mentioned her initial reaction was to ask the ladies if she could speak to their husbands about this issue; however, she learned the women didn’t want this as it would only make the situation worse.

This experience must have taught her how to help where she can by being a listening ear and a support system for these incredible women. Her efforts yield results as we learned none of her current employees are beaten today! Progress here at Naturellement café could be perceived as being “shwiya ba shwiya” or “little by little,” yet the progress made within the lives of the Tamil women that work here is interminable.

img_0281

References:

  1. http://www.naturellement.in/
  2. Dhawan, Himanshi. “60% of Men Admit to Wife-beating: Poll – Times of India.” The Times of India. Bennett, Coleman & Co., 11 Nov. 2014. Web. 26 Dec. 2016.

A Visual Insight Into a Sustainable Fashion Business

By Mia Windisch-Graetz

Check out some pictures I took during my time working for Uma Prajapati, ethical fashion designer and founder of Upasana based in Auroville, India.