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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Products for sale at Naturellement Café

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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.

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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.

 

 

“I am Full of Hope for the Future”

Sustainable fashion designer Uma Prajapati talks about bloody cotton, high-speed trains and why she never wanted to become a business woman.

DSC00121Uma Prajapati in her apartment in India. Image Credit: Mia Windisch-Graetz

January 7, 2016. 3:22 P.M. Auroville, South India.

“Hold on tight or you won’t survive,” I keep telling myself while sitting on the back of Uma Prajapati’s motorcycle. The rebellious driving style of the fashion designer and founder of Upasana clearly reflects her obstinate approach to her career path. We are on the way to her apartment, where I interview her over a cup of tea. Besides her impressive book collection, design furnishings and a kitchen everyone in their twenties can only dream about, it is her story that fascinates me.

MIA WINDISCH-GRAETZ Tell us about your career progression, where you studied, where you worked, who influenced you.

UMA PRAJAPATI After I finished my studies in economics in my hometown Bodh Gaya, I went to New Delhi. There I did my major in fashion design at the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) from which I graduated in 1994. Then, I worked two years for the European fashion market in Delhi. For a design project I came to Auroville in 1996. I remember I only had 2,000 rupees in my pocket, less than 30 euros. Actually, I was supposed to be there for two weeks but those weeks turned into years. And well, I ended up creating Upasana in 1997. Wow, it’s now been twenty years since I first got here.

MWG What does sustainable fashion mean to you?

It means to care. Once you start to care about people and the environment, the ways you make decisions will change. This twist in your mind comes naturally. The way you think changes. And your plans change. You really have to plan ahead to dodge around big conglomerates that only want to make profit.

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MWG What inspired you to create Upasana? 

UP A couple of things. A little more than ten years ago, thousands of cotton farmers in India committed suicide because of the rising costs of farming brought about by Monsanto. It has driven them to crippling debt. They felt they had no other choice. That really hit me. And change happens when it hits you. It doesn’t come easy but when you get hit and cry helplessly, that is when you find the change.

Since then it became very clear to me that fashion has to be sustainable. I worked in fashion and with cotton at this time. I had to live with that. I felt responsible for what happened. Many people in India pretend to not know what’s really going on. There is a seed mafia and farming communities are not well educated. I knew that everyone would just continue the way they work. Why is the world so unfair? Fashion is the second largest industry in the world. And it’s a really bloody business. When we started to work with cotton farmers in South India, it changed my life. What I could do to help these people? I had the choice to either write nasty articles and blame others, or I could just go ahead and change the way I work and consume. And that’s what I did. At first, it was hard but I realized that positive conversation has a far greater effect than negative conversation for a positive cause. I thought, Okay, I will give you fashion but I will make it my own way. I also wanted to create a space where young professionals from all over the world can come and explore Auroville through textiles and design.

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Upasana Spring/Summer 2015 Collection. Image Credit: Upasana

MWG You said ‘a couple of things.’ What else hit you?

UP There was an old lady. I encountered her in a village where I was running a project to empower local weavers in South India. When I was sitting there, next to our car, about to go home again, she suddenly came over to me. She nudged me and asked: ‘Would you support us too?’ I did not expect that and just asked her: ‘What do you want me to do?’ She just wanted to work and earn a few rupees a day. This woman was about sixty and still had a dream. The dream of only earning a few rupees a day.

MWG How is Upasana a sustainable fashion brand?

UP We only use cotton from local farmers. Going organic was the biggest change we have ever made. The clothes are made by our seamstresses and tailors at Upasana. And we only use high quality, naturally dyed fabrics that are made in India.

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Image Credit: Upasana

MWG Sounds very costly… Between ourselves, does it pay off?

UP To be honest, it really broke us financially. We did not realize how badly it would hit our business. I did it all wrong. I jumped in blindly. If I had known how difficult it would all be, I would have done things differently. Instead of taking a leap of faith I might have taken baby steps in the right direction. Despite everything, I am very proud of that move.

MWG Why did you choose fashion as your medium for social change?

UP Because I didn’t know anything else. If I had known music I would have used music. If I were a writer I would’ve used writing…

MWG Every project you have started so far has been very successful. You launched a concept store in Pondicherry and sell your clothes throughout India. You give TED talks, CNN reported about you, and local designers as well as people from all over the world come to work with you. Was starting your own business always a dream of yours?

UP No. I never wanted to start my own business. I wanted to be an artist. Even as a child I was obsessed with painting and writing poetry. It was clear to me that I wanted to become a painter or a writer. I knew myself well enough to know that I wouldn’t be able to make money. Making money didn’t interest me at all. But then I came to Auroville and well, look at me now. I don’t know why, but something in me accepted that I am a business lady now. It took me a long time to digest that.

MWG What keeps you doing all of this?

UP I love the community. Many people appreciate us for what we do, for being consistent and for actually doing what we truly believe in. Bringing a sense of value in the fashion industry is what I am very proud of. I have a good night’s sleep, you know. And I am really grateful for all the support we get.

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Image Credit: Upasana

MWG Did other girls you were growing up with have the same opportunities as you had?

UP Wow, that’s a very serious question. I can’t speak for other girls. I can just say that you have to jump at every opportunity life offers you. I just did it. When you keep on asking yourself questions like ‘Is it the right time? Can I? May I? Will I?’ and never risk anything, then you might risk that there might be no more chance. And the opportunity will be gone forever. Sometimes we just have to make decisions and act. I can think of so many girls in my class that had the exact same opportunities as I had but few put them into practice.

MWG Do you think people consciously ignore the work that goes into what they buy?

UP We are living in a high speed train. Everything is so fast. Now you are relaxing and listening to me, but as soon as the interview is over, you will go back into the train. The speed of life is accelerating and the demands to our flexibility are constantly rising. Sometimes we manage to communicate through three technical devices at the same time. Everyone is on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp. And we are expected to respond within seconds. There is such an overload of information. The question is, How do we process all of that? Our attention is limited. Being quiet enough to make a conscious choice is very hard nowadays.

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I personally need to mediate and do yoga for at least thirty minutes a day. It is challenging to make a conscious choice in times like these. When we hear that Africa suffers we say ‘Ah, that’s horrible!’ but a few seconds later, we forget about it because we get a Whatsapp message from a friend or see a funny post on Facebook. News touch our brain cells for just a few seconds and only a moment later, they do not exist any more. Because we have other problems. Because we do not feel responsible and don’t have time. I think that many people simply don’t know that the consumer has the power to make a conscious choice and change the world. So I would not blame anyone.

MWG Do you think that peopleʼs values regarding sustainability have changed in recent years?

UP Yes. Education is definitely changing people’s values more and more. Sustainability has never been such a big topic. It matters to us, our children and next generations. I am full of hope for the future! I am very, very hopeful.

Priya look 2015 (28)Image Credit: Upasana.

MWG Will they ever have the potential to compete with big fast fashion conglomerates such as H&M or Zara?

UP There will always be a market for both, as they address different target groups and meet different individual needs. I am sure that there will be more of a change but I can’t predict to what extent. There will certainly always be a place for people who want to promote an ethical lifestyle. Niche markets will always exist and find people who support them.

MWG In 2012 the second largest fast fashion retailer H&M launched its first conscious collection. Could sustainable fashion finally be going mainstream?

UP Not really. This idea sounds kind of utopian to me. We should see the world in many shades of grey. Nobody is perfect. And diversity is a beautiful thing. Let’s stay optimistic and say that although big companies will always exist, they may change their ways in order to become more successful in the coming years. People start to think differently, even if only at a slow pace.

MWG You are already working with many organizations and designers in India. Are there any other organizations or designers in your mind that you would like to work with? 

UP I am impressed how big the ethical fashion market in Europe is. I would like to work with the European sustainable design market.

MWG Which social development project are you most proud of? 

UP The little Tsunamika doll is still our most successful project. She is a darling. She is more than a living symbol. She is hope. She is love. It is impressive what a huge impact a small doll like her can have on people all over the world. In 2004, I wanted to help people who were affected by the devastation of the tsunami. So I employed women to make female dolls that are made of recycled waste that remained of the devastation. The doll cannot be bought or sold but only gifted. More than six million of them made it to eighty countries across the globe. And the Tsunamika story is told in schools ranging from Spain to Singapore.

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The Tsunamika dolls. Image Credit: Mia Windisch-Graetz

MWG  Where do you see Upasana in the next five years? 

UP Upasana has already inspired many students, organizations, designers, brands and people. We will just keep on designing for change. I want to do as many things as possible: Going international without going too crazy and breaking our neck, keep being financially sound and take baby steps to reach our goals. I see Upasana as a shining star.

 

Towards the end of the interview, the fashion designer suddenly jumped off the couch. Apparently, she was no longer in the mood to answer questions. “Let’s have more tea. We need a break.” After she persuaded me to try some vegan honey nut balls, (Prajapati’s lactose intolerance means one cannot find any diary products in the household), she offered me a ride back to my hostel for the night. Once I arrived, I posted a photo on Instagram and did some work for university while I kept my friends updated on Whatsapp. She was right. I was back. Back on that high-speed train.

By Mia Windisch-Graetz

 

Gender Sensitization Orientation

I will preface this by saying that this is written in the style of a participant observation. Though it’s not the most invigorating writing style, the content has value. I believe in practicing respect and tolerance for all cultures while searching for understanding, meaning and a connection. Leave your thoughts at the end. I am very curious to hear other points of view.
Gender Sensitization Orientation (Participant Observation)
31 December 2015 2:19 PM- 4:50 PM
-Approximately 30 couples comprised of married men and women and unmarried boys and girls * (description given to me by the organizations employees)
-Event held by Adecom, local NGO that works in ‘women’s rights’ ‘gender equality’ and ‘gender sensitization’ predominantly amongst rural Dalit populations in the Tamil Nadu region
-The Dalit are the suppressed “untouchable” communities in India’s ‘former’ caste system that are still systematically discriminated against.
-The interaction took place in the Tamil language with interspersed comments in variant local languages. One of the male employees served as my translator.

Walking into a gathering of formally dressed young couples with the males wearing button down shirts, dress pants and sandals and the women wearing saris I get curious stares as I walk past them and into the office to meet with my boss. She is sitting at the table between two people I have not met before. I am introduced to a man who I am told is a teacher of gender sensitization, he stands and informs me he has been recognized by the president of India for his work, I politely smile and shake his hand. The woman on the other side I am told is an activist like Lalida, my boss, she simply smiles at me and shakes my hand across the table.
As I walk back outside the chairs are being put back in order and everyone is getting settled mostly male and female partners together intermingled. The man that I was introduced to before sits in front of the gathering and speaks to them in Tamil he asks a question and two males respond a couple minutes later a woman responds, a dialogue starts and everyone laughs. All seem to be avidly paying attention.
My translator tells me he is giving them an example of a 17 year old boy with a 13 year old girl who fell in love and had relations and now the girl is pregnant. He is asking the couples what their view is on the incident. I am told here in India majority is at 18 years of age. According to the marriage act in India a male should be 21 and a female at least 18. The couples are asking what the circumstances are surrounding the situation. According to the Marriage Act the male should be sent to a juvenile home. The “important man” asks the couples what should be done about the girl. He suggests she be sent to school. He tells them the boy will be sent to the juvenile home for 2-3 years and then he will be released and he will be fine. The female will be affected more. One male distractedly looks around.
In another case a school going girl child was pregnant, she was taking an exam, she leaves during the exam births her child, throws it out the window and returns to finish the exam.
He asks how the men will take better care of their wives. They respond we will take better care of them, we will help with the dishes. He asks the women what they expect from their husbands? The females choose not to respond. One of them says she will respond later.
…everyone claps, jokes are being told, people laugh.. occasionally someone glances my way both the males and the females seem curious about my presence.
He asks how the couples got married, one couple responds they fell in love and with the consent of their family they got married. Everyone claps…
He asks the males what are you doing in favor of your wives? The women respond. He asks if there are any males willing to come forward and respond. No one is willing…Lalida speaks..one husband responds “I am doing all the household chores.”
One of the girls states she observed her fathers behavior with her mother and she understood she should be very tolerating in her family. Everyone laughs. She continues stating she is wondering if her husband will be like she is, if he will be tolerating. Her future husband responds he will be tolerating and he will help her. She states when she is having a child she will not show discrimination in a boy or girl.
Another woman speaks up and states that when she is not feeling well her husband will do all the household activities and cook for her.
A man speaks up telling the crowd he is a follower of Ambedkar, my translator explains Ambedkar is an Indian philosopher, he says Ambedkar believes there should be no discrimination between a boy or a girl and we should not hurt our ladies. He states he is doing the same.
A female stands next to the “important man,” he explains she is a worker at Adecom and he asks her to explain how her family is going on, how she fairs in her family and how her husband is helping her? She explains that after coming to Adecom she learned that women have rights, her husband had been beating her but after learning he acts better. Everyone claps. Now he is helping her by cooking and washing the clothes. Everyone claps again. She tells everyone her mother-in-law had also hurt her many times. Women interact with her, ask questions, and make comments. There is some laughing. She says many problems arise from her mother-in-law. A male employee films her speech. Everyone claps. When she is done she sits.
Another female employee stands to speak. She tells about the behavior of her mother-in-law, telling them that she will support her own daughter but not her daughter-in-law. She says her husband is so cooperative with her he helps her in all ways. She addresses the couples and tells them that the husbands should help their wives. Most females clap. Some males clap.
Lalida speaks…a female responds…she is telling it is better when her husband is taking decisions he should tell his wife, ask her opinion… theres clapping
Lalida speaks
My translator tells me he also does not understand all the words he speaks Malayalam he is from Kerala in the south of India. He tells me I can look on a map to find it. He notes I also write down our interaction, I respond its part of what is going on.
The ‘important man’ speaks again, he is telling them our aim is the equality of women with men, for that we assemble here, for that we are speaking. He is telling them to join us in that goal. He is telling them if there is no equality ‘normal society’ will not join.
A male speaks, my translator tells me he is speaking in a fully colloquial language and he does not understand. He listens quietly for a while then tells me the man is telling them we should not go for abortion of girl child, in family the male should help the ladies in household chores, there should be no discrimination between boy or girl.
The ‘important man’ gives another example telling them that at the time of marriage it is customary for the girls mother and father to give her husband a car, it is registered in the husbands name. He is telling them the money is from the brides family and the car should be registered also in the girls name. He continues stating that normally when naming the child we give the initial of the fathers name so there also the mother does not have a role, he tells them that when naming the child they can put the father and the mothers name.
Some suggestions for girls/ladies..
Ladies should respect their husbands
They ask for someone to read the women’s suggestions formulated by the group earlier in the day in a workshop that they did.
A woman stands off to the side and reads off a piece of paper
-When a decision is taken in the family, women should be involved also
-Ladies should not kill the girl child at the time of birth or before birth. They should look after girl child properly
-By telling all this I am not against the husband, with the husband I will fight for the empowerment of women and I will work for that..
^My translator asks what I am studying?
-I respond political science and international affairs
^He asks what I will do with that?
-I respond I will work for an international NGO with human rights or maybe emergency humanitarian response.
^He states that if I am doing international human rights every country has its own rules and regulations.
-I tell him that why I am here in India, to observe and learn how and why people are different.
^He asks me where I am from?
-I tell him I am from the United States
^He tells me everything must better in the United States, that we can do everything just with our phones, as he holds up his own.
-I laugh and tell him it is not necessarily better just different and I agree with him that we can do almost anything with our phones
^He asks where I am studying?
^Where my parents are?
^How long my program is?
^Will I go back to the US when I am done?
-I respond that I am studying in France but my parents are back in the United States. My program will last a little over a year in a half and whether or not I go back to the US will depend on if I can get a job somewhere else or not.
^He silently contemplates this…
^He tells me he has family in the US in Florida and New York
Another male worker comes and sits by him and they speak to each other in Tamil.
^He then turns to me asks me what the official language of the US is?
-I tell him there is no official language, people can speak whatever language they want but English is the common language and most people speak English
^He asks me if I like India
-I tell him I do but it is very different from what I am use to
^He tells me that if I stay in India for a year I will get use to it
Feedback from the couples;
After coming here they also start to think about the empowerment of women and how they can favor their wives.
Clapping
There is a couple that has had a “law marriage,” Lalida is asking them directly to provide their feedback. They choose not to respond.
I ask what “law marriage’ means and my translator explains Law Marriage means the couple chose to marry by law without their parents opinion or approval. They took their own decision he says. He then tells me an Arranged Marriage means the parents chose and approved.
^He asks me if I know of arranged marriages
-I tell him I do but that it is not something that I practice
^He asks me if I am married?
-I respond I am not
^He asks when I will marry?
-I tell him I don’t know, maybe some day in the future but not any time soon and it is not something that I am actively searching for
^He asks me my age?
-I respond I am 27
He reads my notes and laughs
^He tells me that what he asks me is personal and I do not need to write it down
-I tell him its part of my assignment and is not for anyone to read

Lalida is telling the couples she is a follower of Ambedkar, she is motivating them.
I am conscious of how I am sitting and that the bottoms of my feet may be showing, I shift positions. My legs are starting to fall asleep.

My translator is looking over my shoulder reading what I am writing so I get a bit self-conscious and stop writing.

The conversation continues for a moment, the ‘important man’ speaks the couples come to the front individually and gifts are given to all the couples and a female employee thanks them for coming. Everyone stands and starts saying their goodbyes. They wish everyone a Happy New Year and a Happy Pongal (harvest festival in Tamil Nadu) They stand in groups and take pictures slowly they start to leave 2-3 per motorcycle.

After they are all gone the Adecom employees gather around in a circle, my translator joins them. They speak in Tamil with interspersed English words. They seem to be discussing how the day went, giving feedback or maybe what they’ve learned from the session. The ‘important male’ seems to be the lead speaker at one point one of the female employees seems to be talking to him and his phone rings while she is speaking, he answers his phone and she falls silent quietly waiting for him to finish his conversation. He finishes talking on the phone and addresses the male sitting next to the female who had been previously speaking. Another female speaks and the ‘important man’ interrupts her, she continues to speak and one female claps when she is done. Nandi, a female employee, begins to speak. I understand the words ‘gender sensitivity’ and ‘gender equality’ spoken several times along with the word “couples”. The ‘important man” speaks I understand “communication training” “the invitation” “in the reading” “background material” “reading material” “it’s a learning” “communication activity” Lalida’s husband responds and a discussion ensues, it sound like they’re arguing I hear the words “budget constraint” there is finger pointing and speakinf with hands a little aggressively. The ‘important man’ continues to speak with his hand but he smiles as he speaks. I notice he has a wedding ring. He gets up and everyone claps, he grabs bags with the gifts he was given earlier, speaks to Lalida’s husband and then he leaves. A female follows him out, she sits side saddle on the back of his bike. Lalida speaks, 2 other male employees speak (no rings), another male employee speaks, he has a wedding ring, he speaks firmly. Lalida’s husband’s phone rings and he answers. Lalida begins speaking “new place for learning,” a female speaks and Lalida seems to mouth a silent “thank you.” They seem to continue to give their observations the conversation seems to get more serious/intense. Nandi begins to speak very passionately and ends up excusing herself and leaves visibly upset. My translator says a few words and then Lalida begins to speak more quietly. Nandi returns and joins the circle..

***Thoughts:
I found the interaction to be incredibly interesting. It is clear to see the very delineated gender roles in the society I was observing. From the moment I walked into the gathering and the ‘self-important male’ dominated the introductions and later the conversation I began to question teaching gender equality and gender sensitization in an environment that is more self aware but still very much male dominated. I wondered if the use of a prominent male speaker was intentional and if the organization felt it was easier to get their message across through him because he would be better received and the couples would be more receptive to his words. I found correlations with previous classes and studies, where I learned that in societies with systematic and internalized suppression of women, the older women will perpetuate the cycle of oppression even when the younger males seems more open to equality within the roles. It is also clear that the discrimination against women is deeply rooted and unconscious to the level that unless they are being directly confronted with examples of what should be done, when and why the gender roles are not even questioned. I quickly realized through my translator’s questions that neither he nor any of the males there would know what to do with a female such as myself; opinionated, independent, stubborn and very strong willed, very rarely submissive and not at all interested in marriage or a male protector/caretaker. I question whether I would be that person if I had been born here or in a different environment. I also found interesting the societal relationship to marriage and the fact that through their own description a woman and a man are married while those who are unmarried are described as girls and boys. I caught myself thinking that they just needed time to be educated and to advance into a more evolved society where the concept of gender equality did not need to be preceded with concepts of what a male should do and what a female should do. As if a man doing the dishes suddenly makes everything equal. I began to think of them as children that needed to be taught better so they could do better. This brought about mixed emotions on my belief that different does not necessarily mean one view is better or one view is wrong. While I did not feel I actively passed judgment the difficulty of silencing ones own biases was very apparent. I thought back to my paper on cultural relativity in human rights and began to question the feasibility of applying concepts of universal human rights to societies that cannot even begin to understand the concepts embodied within the CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women). In their brochure they refer to the ‘Dalit’ as the backward class, I cringed at the term but momentarily saw a parallel in the way their culture functions to suppress women. I reprimand myself for passing judgement. If a 16 year old girl with a child and a loving and caring husband that values her and treats her as his equal is happy and feels she has a purpose and is contributing to not only her family but her community, who am I to say that she must do otherwise? Should her perception of the world change to include mine simply because I perceive that there is something lacking? Should her world be morphed into something that is unrecognizable to her and potentially makes her miserable so that I can have the satisfaction of saying that women are equal to men and that we have succeeded in ensuring every child has a basic education and everyone’s human rights are being respected? I think on the fact that I must filter the information I am receiving through broken English and a translator who does not fully understand and who is influenced by his own biases, his view of me as an outsider that may or may not judge his culture and his obvious discomfort with me writing down everything he said. I reflect on the parts of the conversation that where not translated to me and am aware that my level of understanding through gestures, tone and expressions may have been simply perceived understanding from interjecting my own views and making assumptions from my own expectations. I believe there are things that translate across cultures… feelings… emotions… basic needs. I am not sure if I should look at the world as evolving and as some peoples more evolved than others or as if there is some end game to which we are all evolving. I feel as if that train of thought presupposes there is a “right way” to be, or a single idea of “right” towards which we should all strive which further complicates my feelings towards a universal human rights declaration. I question everything and feel that I find no answers but only more questions…

Lina Reyes

Creche Visits and Microfinance Insights – Welcome to My Days at PSDF!

Indra Muthu – Creche Teacher and Self-Help Group Leader

Indra Muthu – Creche Teacher and Self-Help Group Leader

I am nearing the end of my internship with The People’s Social Development Foundation (PSDF) and have had an incredible experience. PSDF works to improve the socio-economic welfare of the Dalit community and women in the rural and slum villages surrounding the city of Pondicherry through awareness programs, childcare support services, disaster relief, family counseling, micro-credit entrepreneurship programs, and vocational training.

My favorite day of my internship thus far included site visits to 3 of the crèches (daycare/ pre-primary education centers) that PSDF runs in coordination with the Government of India’s Rajiv Gandhi National Crèche Scheme. The Rajiv Ghandi National Crèche Scheme For the Children of Working Mothers was started by the Government of India (GOI) in recognition of the “failure  to meet the needs of working mothers” in need of “quality substitute care for their young children while they are at work.” As free, public education is not provided for Indian children until they reach 4 years of age, families unable to afford private daycare fees must care for their young children on their own until they can begin school. Most of the children’s parents work as day laborers in factories, and while this provides generally consistent work, wages are very low, between 80-100 rupees day (approx. $1.30-1.62), and no benefits are provided. If both parents are able to bring in these wages consistently, the family can cover its basic shelter, food and clothing costs, but face difficulty any time a large or unexpected expense comes up, such as school tuition or sickness. Mothers who have to take care of children are unable to work at the factories as they provide no childcare services, thus imposing a great amount of financial stress on these families. Even if the child remains at home with their mother or another relative, it is rare for them to receive the kind of educational attention provided at the crèches, as many families are illiterate and/or do not speak English. Children thus enter school with little prior experience in reading or educational activity, making it easy for them to fall behind quickly.

I headed out to the crèches in the hopes of gathering lots of information and individual stories about the children in the crèches in order to assist my grant-writing and fundraising for PSDF and was able to gather quite a bit of good material even if it wasn’t what I was expecting!_MG_3322

I did not anticipate that so many of the crèche teachers would be involved in or lead PSDF Micro-Credit Self Help Groups (SHGs) as well as teach in the crèches. I was struck by how both of the women that I interviewed more intensively really focused in on the social/non-economic impact of the SHGs and microfinance plans. I kept pushing questions about how/if microfinance had raised their living standards and what kind of income micro businesses generated in relation to other jobs – but after awhile my translator Segar laughingly told me that this topic didn’t seem to be what they were most interested in. Instead, the women kept telling him about the support system that the SHG had created for them.

Standing with Creche Teachers who are also SHG Members

Standing with Creche Teachers who are also SHG Members

Instead of simply grouping together in order to be able to have access to loans, PSDF requires its SHGs to save on their own through monthly contributions (usually 50-100 rupees) by each member. The women talked about how having this pool of savings took away their fear that even a small misfortune, such as a family member falling ill, could wreak havoc on their family financially. All of the women understand that misfortune could hit anyone of them, and thus know that even if their savings are going to help someone else in the immediate term, in the long term it is also providing security for them. Furthermore, the women told me about the strong bond that the SHG creates. For example, one told how in her group they are “each other’s biggest cheerleaders” and that if one woman opens a microbusiness, the group all comes on the first day to be her first customers. They then make sure to wear/show the products they bought around the village and surrounding villages, as a form of free advertising by word of mouth. The sari she was wearing that day was made by a member of her SHG, and she said that she drops that fact into conversation as much as possible to get the word out. Furthermore, through the education and awareness programs that PSDF conducts each month with the SHGs, the women bond even more by talking about issues that are often taboo, such as menstruation, domestic violence, dowry issues, and child abuse. The women see that they are not alone in their problems and can brainstorm ways to help each other or encourage each other to bring large issues to the Family Counseling Center at PSDF.

Listening to the children sing and recite in English - very impressive for only 1-3 years old!

Listening to the children sing and recite in English – very impressive for only 1-3 years old!

I did not expect that my main takeaway from these visits would be learning so much about how microfinance participants view the value of the assistance that microfinance provides them! It is a good lesson for me that while economic empowerment and a raising of one’s monetary standard is important in the context of impoverished peoples, “non-economic” empowerment is also extremely important and perhaps even more important to some, as these women indicated. This provides an important counter to the connotation that often comes with the term “non-economic empowerment” in the development community that denotes that this is somehow a lesser achievement than economic empowerment. I’m thankful that the women resisted the way my line of questioning/interviewing was going and instead shared what they really cared about – it’s difficult to be sensitive to that on my own when going through a translator, so I feel lucky to have gained this insight despite my preconceived notions about how microfinance worked. In the words of Radna Gandhi Madhi, a PSDF Self-Help Group Leader and Crèche Volunteer Helper, “Microfinance goes beyond improving one’s economic position, for me it is even more about the social effect of coming together.”

If you are interested in learning more about PSDF’s Crèche Program and how you can help them, please click here to be taken to their website. PSDF is currently conducting a 1 month “Crèche for Success” fundraiser to raise money to reopen 5 crèches that have been closed in the past 2 years due to lack of funds, leaving 125 children without free care and education during the day. $14 and 5 minutes of your time is all it takes to cover 2 children’s basic educational costs for an entire year! Thanks in advance for your interest and generosity!!

Anna Wiersma – American University of Paris

Investigating the Impact of Microfinance and Social Enterprises in Auroville

As a student whose primary interests lie in economic and social policy in the developing world, it isn’t too surprising that microfinance has captured my interest, just as it captured the interest of the development community worldwide. Yet, an increasing body of research finds little evidence that microfinance actually helps to lift its recipients out of poverty. Aneel Karnani’s article “Microfinance Misses Its Mark” provides a helpful example to help explain where scholars see microfinance falling short:

“Consider these two alternative scenarios: (1) A microfinancier lends $200 to each of 500 women so that each can buy a sewing machine and set up her own sewing microenterprise, or (2) a traditional financier lends $100,000 to one savvy entrepreneur and helps her set up a garment manufacturing business that employs 500 people. In the first case, the women must make enough money to pay off their usually high-interest loans while competing with each other in exactly the same market niche. Meanwhile the garment manufacturing business can exploit economies of scale and use modern manufacturing processes and organizational techniques to enrich not only its owners, but also its workers.”

Thus, this type of critique leads scholars to see microfinance as a tool that elevates the standard of living of those in poverty, without necessarily drawing them out of poverty, by giving them access to credit that they would not be able to obtain otherwise, due to their lack of collateral and the small loan amounts. Yet, the very small scale of these micro-funded activities is not conducive to actual poverty alleviation; instead, creation of stable jobs is necessary.

Therefore, I was particularly interested in seeing microfinance in action in Auroville, and have been presented with multiple opportunities to do so over the past 10 days. In our visits to different microfinance and social enterprise organizations in and around Auroville, I was fascinated to see this critique being embraced in innovative ways.

WellPaper doesn’t simply form groups of women to receive loans, it provides a structured training in the making of high quality products from recycled materials. Instead of sending the women out to create their own individual crafting enterprises, WellPaper acts as a collective buyer for the women, who can work individually or in teams to fill the orders that WellPaper receives. This provides reasonably steady employment for the women, though there are busy and slow order periods, and allows WellPaper to sell and market its products all over India and abroad.

The Auroville Village Action Group (AVAG) has touched the lives of over 4000 women through microloans and women’s groups and, while continuing to expand their microcredit programs, is investing more and more efforts in opening business lines that provide stable jobs that build on the skills that their loan recipients have acquired. They now have lines selling environmentally friendly feminine protection, clothing and jewelry all over India. Thus enterprise development is building upon initial microfinance and education efforts.

Naturellement goes even farther than providing stable jobs; indeed, its founder argues that this is not enough, and that educating her employees on personal finance and providing a community in which the women can discuss issues such as domestic violence is also necessary.

The People’s Social Development Foundation (PSDF) does focus on self-employment micro-enterprises, and the effects of this do indeed seem to tend more towards “softening the blow” of poverty rather than alleviating it. However, this is not to say that this is not useful. PSDF’s microfinance efforts have made great gains in freeing families from crippling debt to local moneylenders and empowering women in non-economic ways, through providing counseling and social forums to discuss domestic violence and women’s political and communal leadership.

PSDF conducts awareness programs and group counseling in the 47 villages that it works in, as well as providing microloans.

PSDF conducts awareness programs and group counseling in the 47 villages that it works in, as well as providing microloans.

Thus, while it is important to take critiques of microfinance into account, criticizing microfinance’s ability to alleviate poverty does not mean that microfinance is a completely ineffective tool. Opening large enterprises that provide stable jobs is not always feasible in the short-term, especially in rural areas that are not attractive to investors due to a lack of skilled workers.
Indeed, both AVAG and PSDF note that, while the microfinance approach may not pull its recipients out of poverty, when coupled with education initiatives, it provides a basis for further quality of life improvement in future generations and a stronger foundation for present and future skills acquisition, thus creating a more attractive environment for larger, traditional investors in the future. These organizations see less children being taken out of school to work and less interest and trust in financing from moneylenders.

Auroville has thus demonstrated to me how both microfinance and enterprise building can be used as a package to empower and alleviate the poverty of developing communities. There is rarely a true “silver bullet” in development; rather, development practitioners need to draw from a toolkit of multiple tools, depending on the specific situation at hand. While the Auroville context, from my observations, provides further evidence that microfinance is not necessarily the best tool for rapid poverty alleviation, and the power of enterprise building and job creation to do so instead, it also demonstrates the power of microfinance coupled with social and economic education to lay a foundation for skills acquisition and women’s non-economic empowerment, which may ultimately create a more conducive environment for larger scale job creation in the future.

Stay tuned as I begin my work with the People’s Social Development Foundation for these next two weeks and explore this topic and the power and shortfalls of microfinance in more detail!

– Anna Wiersma, American University of Paris – MPPA (Master of Public Policy and International Affairs)

Sources for further information on the “Microfinance Critique”:

Banerjee, A. V., & Duflo, E. (2006, October). The Economic Lives of the Poor. .

Karnani, A. (2007, Summer). Microfinance Misses Its Mark. Standord Social Innovation Review. Retrieved December 29, 2013, from http://www.ssireview.org/articles/entry/microfinance_misses_its_mark/

Panagariya, A. (2010, December 17). Does Microfinance Reduce Poverty? An Analysis of India’s Crisis. Brookings. Retrieved from http://www.brookings.edu/research/opinions/2010/12/17-india-panagariya#