Saturday, November 26, 2011

Week 2 in Saurath, Bihar

I'm finally at my project site in the ganv of Saurath. Saurath is a small village in Bihar, about 6 hours away from the main city of Patna, and it has a population of less than 5,000. As is typical with most rural areas, access to education and resources is very limited here, particularly for women. What makes the situation more complicated though, are the many issues that exist around caste and one's social image and reputation.

Take for example, the upper caste business owner we met this week. Now this man's wife won an idea competition some months ago to start a masala micro-enterprise. Since the initial idea and micro-loan submission, though, the woman's involvement has drastically declined and there's been no real work done to date. In reality, they have indeed faced issues in finding cost-effective packaging to maintain margin. But I also found out that there's another concern that revolves around his daughter's upcoming marriage. See, for some, having this masala business has a certain social stigma attached to it. There's concern that they may not find the right match if he appears to be a "lowly masala-vala." But,as we discussed in our meeting with him this week, why not try to focus on this business' ability to elevate his his family's financial position (essentially an indicator of "increased marriage-ability").

And as I've seen in talking to many of the people here, a child's wedding is often the main concern in any family decision, financial or otherwise. So many are willing to spend extra money that they do not have in order to throw a fancy wedding to show the rest of the village. And for many, the extreme financial burden this places on the family prevents them from making other investments (educational, business, personal etc.), that could really raise their family's standard of living and uplift them.

On the project front, we are making progress slowly but surely. The women's shop is set to launch in less than 2 weeks and there's still a lot to do! But, more on this a bit later...

For now, here are some pictures from my first few days in the village.

A few scenes from across Saurath and nearby villages:

My visit to a papad family business in a nearby village to understand their process and production capabilities:

Me at the office with a few new friends:

Sunday, November 20, 2011

First Week!

What better way to celebrate a new year than with an adventure? That's why I'm starting my 25th year of life here in my ancestral grounds of India. I'm filled with eager hope (perhaps idealistic naivete) that somehow I will be able to bring change to the women of Saurath, and "find myself" somewhere along the way.

And after a 16+ hour commute, I am finally in Noida and ready to get to it. The week began with learning more about the Saurath community, the work done to date and the objectives of our current project. Over the next few months, our goal is to empower the women of Saurath through the establishment of a "women's shop" - a shop run by women and made exclusively with female needs in mind. The shop will provide goods and services previously under-supplied (if at all) - from small cosmetic items to child care tools to hygiene and other women's products.

See, what I have learned is that not only are many women's products not available or too expensive in rural areas, but many women often go through their male counterparts or older women in the family (if they are younger) to make all the shopping decisions. And because of certain social barriers and stigmas associated with buying these products, particularly from the vast majority of male shop keepers around, many women are often left under-informed and ill-equipped.

So I got to thinking about the female experience here in India. Granted, I've only been here a few days, so I really don't know much yet. But I can tell you what I've seen. And as I told a friend of mine who just moved back to India from the U.S., I've seen that it takes real cojones to live here as a woman. From dodging the shameless stares and whistles of the male passer-by (this is why I'm grateful for ladies only cars on the Metro!), to trying to convince others that you still have time on your ticking "biological clock" for marriage, to cautiously avoiding traveling alone after certain hours - there's a lot of can-not's and should-not's for a woman. Not that this doesn't exist all over...

But enough of my feministic rant. What I am most anxious about now, is to see and experience the life of a woman in rural India. To understand the unique set of circumstances and history that have created the social structure that exists today. I'm hoping to really immerse myself in the Saurath community (gotta build those Hindi skills!), so that the solution we are building through the women's shop won't just be a one-time, short-term fix but rather a sustainable solution that really meets the needs of the women there. And so much so, that it will eventually be owned, driven and pushed even further by the female community itself.

Let's see how much I can push the Jam-indian girl in me to dig deep and identify with another.

PS - I don't have many pics yet, but here's a few from my place: