Posted by Jennifer Porter, Program Officer for Vista Hermosa Foundation
People have made their home in the Thar Desert in Northeastern India for thousands of years. While water has always been a challenge in the desert, communities knew their environment and how to thrive there, building a traditional knowledge base for water collection and soil management. New challenges from climate change – more intense droughts and unpredictable rainy seasons – have led to low agricultural and pastoral yields. Men have had to migrate to work in the mineral mines, leaving women and girls behind to carry the burden of water collection and farming. Although they take on this responsibility, women are often under-resourced and not seen as leaders. Further economic stress in the family often leads to conflict and violence against women and girls.
Pushpa Devi, 39, lives on 2 acres of farmland with her 7 children. The family is impoverished. Until recently, Pushpa’s life centered on fetching water, cooking meals, and taking care of children. She had no time for herself and had no voice in any decisions of family or community.
When Gramin Vikas Vigyan Samiti (The Center of People’s Science for Rural Development, GRAVIS) began their Gender Equity through Mitigating Droughts project (GEMD), Pushpa joined an Intergenerational Learning Group (ILG) with other women in her community. Women of all ages, different social castes and religions came together to discuss the challenges facing their community, and implement development plans.
At first Pushpa thought she would have to leave the group. She only has a very basic understanding of reading and writing and struggled to understand the discussions on leadership, drought-resistant agriculture, water infrastructure, and health. The group met regularly and Pushpa attended each session. As time went on, GRAVIS staff and the women helped each other to understand and find their voices, and Pushpa began to enjoy the meetings.
For the first time Pushpa felt that she could speak and have her thoughts and suggestions taken seriously: Pushpa advocates for rain-saving measures and tree planting. Her family now shows her more respect and includes her in important discussions. Pushpa has also found a new role in her community.
Once she had been excluded from conversations, seen as a marginal member of the community; Pushpa is now in a mutually beneficial relationship with her neighbors. During the COVID crisis in May, Pushpa helped to identify the most vulnerable members of her community, distribute emergency food aid, and help people to understand the spread of coronavirus and how to register for vaccinations:
“I always try to help in supporting the needy families. The project has trusted me. I need to do my work sincerely. COVID is like a scary problem for us. I am glad I am helping my own people. After all, I have a responsibility. I can do everything men do. Why can’t I?”
VHF History with GRAVIS
GRAVIS was established in India in 1983, motivated by the Ghandian philosophy “Sarvodaya,” all rising but the last person first. VHF has partnered with GRAVIS on and off since 2011 on a number of women’s empowerment and development projects. In his article for the World Economic Forum, GRAVIS Founder-Director Prakash Tyagi writes about how developing women’s leadership and supporting the growth of community-based organizations with strong roots is a bridge between the immediate needs of impoverished households and long-term sustainable development goals.