By Charlotte De Val, Safe World Student Writer
Beatrice Vanaja is the chief administrative officer of New Life, an organisation based in Tiruchchirappalli, in the state of Tamil Nadu, India. Tiruchchirappalli (frequently referred to as ‘Trichy’) is a hub for various industrial sectors, education and agriculture, and it is also rich in natural resources.
Tamil Nadu, despite having a relatively better reputation for women’s rights compared to many states in India, has been ranked as the second most corrupt state of India by Transparency International, and thus, has problems of its own. While the literacy rates, according to the 2011 census, are on the rise, poverty levels within rural areas are still high, making the challenge to enhance the lives of women and children in rural Tiruchchirappalli difficult.
New Life is a largely self-funded NGO, and relies on the hard work of Beatrice to raise money to fund community projects.
Charlotte De Val, Safe World Student Writer, spoke to Beatrice Vanaja about her work.
The organisation was started in 1993 by some friends, who were working in the public and organised sector. We were discussing the difficulties we had in addressing the needs of the very poor population, and wanted to find a means to reach them.
We were sure that poor and underprivileged women, who were thought to be not bankable, were bankable and credit-worthy. Hence, the organisation started working with women, who are living in poverty, to help organise their finances and ensure they were aware of the benefits available.
When we started the organisation, I had been married for two years and my son was only a year old. During that time, I also had a full-time job in a bank and my daughter was born less than a year later. I had to multi-task my family, job, and the cherished organisation.
I remember spending my evenings in the field with the women and children while my son and daughter were playing in the car. With the growth of New Life, someone had to take on the full-time job of overseeing the work, and manage the employees and volunteers. With this in mind, I decided I had to resign from my coveted banking career in 2001, in order to give the job sufficient attention.
After that, I had to travel a lot, and it is with thanks to my partner, whose support and encouragement allowed me to be where I am now.
The problems of women and children in Tamil Nadu are similar to those in other states. Tamil Nadu is a developing state, but the status of women and children is improving when compared to states such as Orissa and Bihar.
However, we still suffer from cultural blocks, and women are restrained from coming out for work. Until the 20th century, the women were burdened with the values of: “Acham (fear), Madam (foolishness), Naanam (shyness), and Payirpu (aversion)”; they were shut in their homes. Now urban women are coming out and are working, but in rural areas things have not changed much.
A woman represents her family and is not seen as an individual.
She cannot fulfil her desires and wishes and she has to compromise her needs due to the limited resources of the family.
A woman is always made dependent on a male, be it her father, husband, or son. Women who are separated from their husbands are not given respect, and are ill-treated even by fellow women. This is the case irrespective of the caste, creed, community, and economic strata.
The group whose voice is least heard, or never heard, is that of the children. The children are vulnerable to the refusal of health, education, and psycho-social care. They have their rights easily neglected and violated, and this is in spite of the efforts of many voluntary organisation working for their welfare.
There was resistance from the already existing players. Yes, the resistance came from my fellow organisations.
When I participate in a meeting, it is usual for me to be confronted with comments such as ‘you are inexperienced’, ‘you come from a good background', and ‘so you don’t know the difficulties of the poor’, and ‘you don’t have field experience’. They treated me indifferently.
This is because at that time, most of the voluntary organisations were not headed by professionals and most of them were men. The competition is cut-throat and not healthy, as it should be. The fellow men thought that either I could not sustain in the field with my banking and family background, or I may become a threat. But now they respect me and have accepted me.
We have been persistently doing our work, and in the early years we had to spend a lot of our personal earnings to run the programmes. For the first five years, we had very few funded programmes, but we were determined to run the organisation. In 1998, we received the funding for our child labour special schools. Then everything geared up. We also had an institution which supported our microfinance programme.
People started recognising our work and contributing to our work. They volunteered, donated, and morally supported us. The microfinance program helped us generate our own funds to continue running the programmes.
In the process of empowering women, New Life tried a new model of federations. The women leaders of the federation were trained to manage the federation on their own, make credit decisions, maintain the books of accounts; you will be surprised to know that 95% of the these leaders have not completed their school education.
These women were wrongly guided by one of our male staff, who has since resigned, as he could not accept leadership from women. Also, a few of the project leaders were working with our funder, who wanted to get credit from raising and nurtering these federations directly, and tried to cheat us. It took four years to resolve the issue, affecting the growth of the organisation, and eating away eleven years of hard work in developing female leadership among the poor and less educated communities. It was a good but costly lesson for the organisation.
New Life could overcome the problem as it had a good grip on the field, and the other leaders and members were supporting us. The federations had to be dissolved, and branches were formed to continue the work.
This experience showed us the power and responsibility that came with being an organisation, which also provided holistic support to members.
We support females in our target areas from birth to death. Post-natal care is given to the children until the age of 3, when they can then benefit from our early learning centres. Once they enter the primary schools, they can attend our coaching classes and if eligible, can get their education supported. Girls above 13 are taught health awareness on a variety of issues.
Ante-natal care is provided to pregnant women, and women above 18 can join our self-help group, and benefit from leadership and entrepreneurial training. From this they can start their own enterprises and income generating small businesses, and be supported by our mentorship services. Women can also enroll in a scheme which offers health and life coverage.
The women who have benefitted from the various schemes of the organisation, come from varied backgrounds. Some are from rural areas while the rest are from semi-urban and urban areas. All are poor – or the poorest of the poor, or from low income areas. Of the women in New Life's target community, 56.8 percent of them are illiterate, 41 percent have studied up through the higher secondary school level, and 2.2 percent have collegiate education.
Children below six are the most vulnerable in our target areas, and there is a lot of parental abuse and neglect. They don’t get enough food, care, shelter, or a clean and conducive environment for their development.
Until they reach 13, access to quality education is a problem. We also work with children in crime-prone slums who are vulnerable to juvenile delinquency and abuse. Between the ages of 13 and 18, many children leave school and become child labourers (though our country law describes child labour to be working children below the age of 14, we take this limit to be 18). Adequate education is denied, their childhood is denied, and they become burdened with work and responsibilities beyond their age.
Specific to a few of the slums, the gypsy community, and in some villages, is the problem of early marriage.
Young girls are forced to get married after 2-3 years of attaining puberty, and we see girls below 18 having children in these areas.
After marriage, the women have to depend on their husbands even if they are earning.
There are so many myths and cultural taboos attached to marriage, and they forego even their own food in order to feed their children and husbands properly.
This is an expectation of women, by society.
Women are also encouraged to use New Life loans to set up, or improve, their own businesses in order to become economically self-sufficient.
For example, G. Puspalatha, living in Pasumadam village in Trichy has four children to support, with her husband Govinda. With an initial Rs10000 (about £125) loan from New Life, they were able to create a profitable fire-wood selling business. When asked how it was possible to change her income and lifestyle so quickly, her response was, “At first I am grateful to my God and then to New Life. Without the loan from New Life, it is unachievable to dramatically change our lifestyle. Thanks to New Life and all its members”.
For young women, we are able to help them achieve an education. Anita, one of our students in the special school for child labourers from Ramagiripatti village in Trichy, dropped out of school at eighth standard, to earn additional income for her family. She was sent to rear goats for more affluent families in the village; however, she spoke of her desire to study with her friends.
When this was brought to the attention of our special school teacher, they were able to meet with Anita’s parents. After several attempts to persuade her parents, she joined our special school, studied well, and was admitted to regular school in standard ninth. She passed her higher secondary examinations in May 2010. She is now employed as a teacher in one of our early learning centers. Her parents are now very proud to see her as a teacher. It is her conviction – backed up by our team’s support, that brought her to this position now.
Aside from the educational, health and socio-economic support from the organisation, women are also encouraged to use democracy to improve their lives. Our women members are motivated to participate in panchayath (an elective village council). and general elections. Forty two women members from different locations are elected as ward members and counsellors, while one of our women members, Mrs Malliga Chinnaswamy, was elected as the Member of the Legislative Assembly from Musiri Town Panchayath.
Despite the government of Tamil Nadu spending 30% of its budget on social welfare and rural development programmes, the World Bank went on to say that the success in social empowerment had not translated itself into economic empowerment. This is an issue that New Life has been focusing on, making their approach comprehensive in both social and economic development.
When the organisation was started, we were working for women who were organised into self-help groups, that were linked to banks for financial support. They were given leadership and entrepreneurship training. But with passing years, we found that the women are happier not when their economic status is improved, but when their children develop also. Thereafter, we started working for their children too.
Meanwhile, we also saw that many women and children are made vulnerable to crime and crime-prone circumstances. We are concerned with this, and it has led us to the Rehabilitation of Prisoners’ project.
Real empowerment for a woman is not only her economic development, but her development in all spheres. She needs to be developed socially, within her family and individually, as well as economically.
We are severely concerned about the drastic climatic changes, issues related to the environment, and its impact on our members, and the world as a whole.
Though New Life wants to do much, and has plans to be implemented, we are now restricted by limited funding. A water management project is implemented in the Thanjavur and Trichy districts. Since the funding is limited, we try to compensate by linking up with other institutions like colleges, which has allowed us to implement a tree planting project with colleges in our target areas.
We are also creating awareness about the climatic changes, and the preservation of environment to our members.
When we started working, education was inaccessible to all, and was only a dream to many. But now with years gone, I can see that education is being provided, and the children are motivated to take up higher education.
Education loans are given to all through banking institutions. But the concern is, most of the students who graduated are unemployed or underemployed. This is largely due to the poor quality of our education system, and poorly designed courses – which don’t develop employable skills.
My role is to be a change maker in the community.
Charlotte De Val is a Safeworld Student Writer. She is a history undergraduate, focusing on global, cultural, and social history.
"Over the past two years I have been lucky enough to spend six months living in Chennai, India.
There, my life in a home for disabled and disadvantaged children has cemented by commitment to humanitarianism and my goal for a career in humanitarian aid. They continue to be my inspiration and teach me more about the world than I could have ever hoped for. They continue to be my inspiration and teach me more about the world than I could have ever hoped for. Working with, and not explicitly for, communities is the most valuable contribution we can make."