Colourful sari scarves from my photoshoot last week

scarves

A day of reflection on Day of the Girlchild

Today is the first ever International Day of the Girl Child, so I wanted to share with you why this day is so important in the little part of the world I am currently living. Based on my experience through volunteering with NGO RIDE (Rural Institute for Development Education), in Kanchipuram, South India.

In rural Kanchipuram there are still many landless tribal communities living pretty remote lives and affected by the caste system. Due to lack of education they are extremely poor, without any particular skills many end up working in stone quarries or as day labourers when the work is available.

It is still common in some of these communities for men to marry more than one woman, or girl; I’ve met a girl as young as 13 with a baby on her hip, accompanied by her husbands first wife. The role of the women is an isolated existence shared only with the other wives of the group. They don’t have the understanding of education to realise that it could help them out of poverty and provide their children with a better future.

RIDE tirelessly encourages and aids enrolment in school through all levels of society. They have had some success with the tribal communities through offering support, assisting with enrolment, paying for books and providing help with school fees.  However, even when the children do attend school, the girl is still vulnerable. She will be the one pulled out of school if help is needed at home, if someone is ill, if there is a younger sibling to look after, or if there is only enough money to send one child (the boy) to school. Without education, these girls are very much at risk, without sex education they are open to abuse.

RIDE has set up a system of support that reaches out to these children whether they are at school or not. Understanding that they will not necessarily get the encouragement from home to attend school, RIDE creates a safe and positive environment for the children at their centre in Arpakkam. They invite children from different communities to attend regular programs, to promote a positive attitude towards learning and play, and to create a safe and trusting environment where the children feel happy and able to express themselves. The children are taught though fun workshops, and encouraged to think positively about education and develop their own love for life and learning.

Being a grass roots organisation, RIDE is able to monitor and keep tabs on the children they feel are at risk, knowing them by name and understanding their individual circumstances. At the moment RIDE is focussed on the girls, as there are a few who are reaching womanhood without any real parental guidance. They are in need of support and counselling to help keep them out of danger and protected.

This is a slow, day to day challenge, but without RIDE, and many other grass roots charities and NGO’s around the world, these children and many like them would have no-one looking out for them. They are a great credit to OUR society as a whole and we should do all we can to support them in their tireless work.

To find out more about RIDE visit their website WWW.RIDEINDIA.ORG or their FACEBOOK PAGE

Sari scarf initiative with RIDE finally takes off!

The sari scarf initiative has finally taken off! After receiving interest from one of RIDE’s supporters to sell our products in their home countries a few months ago, we have since pushed forward with the project and began production.

Since the beginning of the year the Scarf Project team have been trying out different styles, techniques and fabrics looking for the best saris to make into scarves. The idea is to provide employment to some women from the local villages and pay a fair wage for their work (we pay twice the going rate for their sewing skills). Vasantha has been involved with RIDE for over 20 years on various projects. She has had a difficult life with her husband leaving her very soon after marriage. The nature of her culture meant that she did not remarry and therefore has no children. Having lost her own parents she now spends time looking after her nieces and nephews and helping others. In her spare time Vasantha has been teaching ladies in her village how to sew to earn a bit of extra income. She now acts as co-ordinator for the project, distributing work among the ladies and managing the production of the scarves. Britto, director of RIDE, manages the financial side and oversee the project.

At the weekend the team completed their first big batch of 250 scarves. These went off to the US with Olivia (the above mentioned RIDE supporter), who has been staying at RIDE for the past week to collaborate on the project and oversee the production of her order. We appreciated getting feedback on the scarves and are very happy to have Olivia on board. Olivia will now take on the US sales and distribution of the scarves.

I will be taking on the UK sales and distribution of the sari scarves, therefore if you have any enquiries please feel free to contact me.

We have also set up a small shop at RIDE so that we can offer tourists passing through the opportunity to view and buy the products, which includes scarves from this project as well as other items sourced from local producers. Visit RIDE’s website for more information on women’s empowerment and this project.

Power of the Senses

Yesterday RIDE (Rural Institute for Development Education), the NGO I am volunteering with, hosted a program for a group of which included both visually impaired and blind participants from Austria. The day was enriching for all those involved and began with children from RIDE’s school presenting some of their recent work to the group, sing songs, rhymes and recite text in English. I was then given the opportunity to explain the work RIDE does and answer questions from the group, imparting some of the things I had learnt about the weaving communities, child labour, customs and village life.

In the afternoon they were taken to a local village where they were given the opportunity to wander freely, meet locals and get a taste of village life. They also participated in a variety of activities including a visit to the silk worm farm, visit to a silk weavers house, and a visit to some of the more remote temples around Kanchipuram.

The groups own tour guide did a fantastic job relaying the unique visual experience of travelling around India to those who were partially sighted or blind. Describing the landscape around, the dramatic colours, the ever present ‘cow in the road’. The experience gave me a renewed sense of wonder. When we have had visitors stay with us for the first time it is always amazing to see India through their eyes. Spending time with this group made me ‘see’ it differently again, with the senses rather than the eyes. India is a full on attack of the senses; the noise, the smells, the piles of rubbish, the heat, if you can get through this initial onslaught I guarantee you can learn to love it!

A humbling day at work

This week RIDE (Rural Institute for Development Education) carried out a program for a group of 15 women who are all day labourers from the village of Arpakkam in Kanchipuram, in order to make contact with these women while also giving me the opportunity to learn first hand about their lives. The women work mainly in agriculture and sometimes stone quarries and struggle to get work on a daily basis. The process for labourers to get work on a daily basis is to stand at a collection point first thing in the morning and wait for a land owner to come and offer work. The landowner will chose their workers based on their looks and build alone and if you are not picked you go home.

RIDE provided the women with half a days paid work (paying more than their usual rate) to clear the ground of weeds at the RIDE training centre. I attended to be a part of the later discussions, however could not stand back and watch these women work. So I got the chance to be a day labourer, for all of about 1-2 hours (2 being a very generous estimate) in the searing Indian heat. It was an extremely humbling experience, especially as these women get paid so little for their work. The will usually get paid between 100-150 rupees for a days work (160 rupees = £2) and will only have very short lunch breaks eating basic rice with a watery broth. I suppose you get used to this situation but I don’t see how you can be upbeat, however we were laughing and joking and bonding with one another, the support of the group felt very strong.

At the end of the day RIDE held a discussion with the women to find out about about the problems affecting them and their families. Their main issues were not having a sustainable income, with many only getting work for 1-2 days a week, much less during monsoon rains and flooding. Also, many of the women have husbands who work in the stone quarries and are dependent on alcohol, which is where a lot of their wages end up being spent. Some are also beaten by drunk husbands. One woman told the group that she finds it best not to ask her husband for money or challenge him and instead she makes do with whatever little money he gives her plus whatever she can earn. This highlights how important it is for these women to have their own income in order to support themselves and their children, the majority of whom are now in full time education and changing their future paths. I also heard some enlightening stories from the women, many of whom have continued to send their children to school against all odds, two women have children in higher education and are so enthusiastic about their future prospects.

What is important for RIDE is to have a presence in these women’s lives and for them to know that they have people on their side who they can turn to. Jeyaraj the director of RIDE, gave a talk about human rights so that they may understand a bit more about their rights both at home and within society. They were also given a talk about multi-crop farming and the possibility, even with little land, to grow some vegetables in order to feed their families during hard times.

After the discussion the women were given a free lunch, provided by RIDE and served by RIDE staff, plus a gift of a sari each, donated by members of a local doctors surgery. Most of the women only have one sari which they wear every day so this gift was especially poignant.

Christmas at RIDE!

Through the generosity of family and friends from the UK, Australia and Germany giving to our ‘Alternative Christmas’ appeal we raised enough money to buy over 130 gifts which were yesterday donated to the poorest children from villages around Kanchipuram, most of whom have been released from labour through RIDE’s child labour programs.

The day was an absolute blast, it seemed to start in such an orderly fashion with the teachers leading queues of children, all in their best dress, to the centre. It soon turned to chaos. And handing out balloons to children is fine, as long as you don’t mind blowing them ALL up yourself! But seeing the children’s faces and the sheer intense excitement when they received their gifts was something that will stay with me forever. Thanks to all those who made it so special.

Children’s day at RIDE’s Sevilimedu school

This week I was invited to accompany Jeyaraj to one of RIDE’s school in Sevilimedu village to participate as guest of honour in their Children’s Day celebrations!

The children, with the help of parents and teachers, dressed up as people of India past and present and included a mini Gandhi, Nehru and other key figures as well as fruit sellers, doctors, flower ladies and more. It was such a fun occasion and the children are so bright and cheerful. A real testament to the success of RIDE’s work!