Saturday, March 3, 2007

12. GUIDE Leadership Meetings

Early in our stay at the beach resort, I wake from slumber to hear Phil and Maud at the door of our cottage. They are returning from a GUIDE leadership meeting for Dalit women.

Phil barely opens the door when Maud shoots past him to the bathroom. He is next in line.

Whew! I couldn't hold it any longer! Maud exclaims as she emerges.

No one warned me that Indians use squat toilets, she says. I studied that hole in the floor for three seconds and said, I don't think so!

Some people say that Asian squat toilets are ergonometrically superior to European toilets and can help to prevent many kinds of disease.

For more about it, read this:

They can promote greater cleanliness, providing water for people to wash their bottoms--always with the left hand.

But they require perfect balance and are not handicap-accessible, which leaves me out.

I don't know how they do it! Maud continues.

And then they sit on the floor all day like yogis!

Phil downloads his photos of the meeting.

Leaders discuss their outreach to surrounding villages. In the center of the floor, stacks of beautiful posters designed by the artist Sathyan (whose name means "truthful") illustrate the issues women are raising with their government. Vasantha stands in the doorway.

Hours before we had flown to India, people who worked for Plan International put us in touch by email with R. Vasantha (left) and Gilbert Rodrigo, who founded GUIDE in 1985--the Gandhian Unit for Integrated Development Education. All these years they have been working on problems confronting poor people in this region.

When the tsunami struck on December 26, 2004, Asian governments had no warning.

GUIDE had already been organizing Indian villagers to demand better government responsiveness. The aftermath of the tsunami brought new awareness that poor people--especially women--needed to confront official failures at every level.

Relief funds had disappeared into the pockets of those who were politically connected--which entirely excluded women and children. Many men drank or gambled away the relief funds intended for their families.

This poster says in Tamil (the predominant language in the state of Tamil Nadu): "It is the right of women to be treated with dignity and honor in times of natural disaster."

It exhorts women and government: "Act now!"

GUIDE focused much of their early attention on water rights along the Palar River Basin, where water is being drained away for urban use. It is not only that women spend hours hauling water to wash, cook, and care for their families.

Much more than that, women are the unrecognized farmers who grow most of the crops and who suffer from loss of food and income when water is not available for agriculture. This has induced many poor women to sell their land to wealthy coastal developers.

One of GUIDE's posters explains how 85% of the Earth's water is used by only 12% of its people--who are not from developing countries. According to the World Health Organization, the lack of safe water kills twelve million people a year, including three million children. As for Earth's energy resources, 58% is consumed by only 5% of the planet's population.

How can we correct this injustice?

GUIDE says: Put land, water, and other resources in the control of local women.

The unity salute, with fingers united and fists raised, signifies solidarity with those from other villages, cultures, and religions who demand gender justice.

"Let us make a society without violence against women." declares this poster. "Act now!"

In their leadership meetings, women share their success stories visiting villages and starting discussions about these issues.

What happened?! Girls and women learn to talk about painful experiences . . .

about the unrelenting needs of children . . .

about feelings of grief and loss . . . about needs of older women . . . ,

about the search for income, dealing with disabilities, supporting families, facing new challenges . . . .

Who are most affected by disasters?

Act now!

In leadership meetings, women discuss the steps required to protect women physically.

As always, they listen and write notes about each other's concerns.

Refugee camps must have women doctors.

Pregnant and lactating women must have adequate, nutritious food.

The government must monitor and prevent child marriage. They must provide counseling for survivors of disaster, along with access to current news and information.

GUIDE presents these concerns and others in attractive posters for women to take into hundreds of villages.

These leaders raise awareness about women's issues throughout the region.

Another poster identifies concerns about government housing that has proven unsafe for women and children. Survivors of disaster need medical services, security, privacy, basic supplies, education, and information.

Women help other women claim these as their own rights.

Young women are also leaders.

They become role models for younger girls.

These young women speak about the right of all girls to have:

•Free, high-quality education
•Preparation for disasters
•A supportive environment at school and in the community
•Concerned, knowledgeable officers
•Appropriate help for the physically challenged
•Sex education
•Safe playgrounds
•Training in children's rights
•Free bus passes for school and
•Mental health services

When government and other organizations built new homes far away for survivors of the tsunami, GUIDE recognized this as a strategic evacuation of fisher people from valuable coastal real estate.

GUIDE secured machines for women to go into business making bricks.

Since they are only permitted to live in the narrow land along the ocean shore, they must dig deep foundations, as shown in this GUIDE photo.

But they are succeeding in rebuilding their fishing businesses and homes on the coast where they can conveniently manage their families and jobs at the same time.

These GUIDE photos show homes being built.

Their houses must be strong enough to withstand ocean storms.

Four generations share this home, including the young mother in front of Vasantha. She had a baby just ten days ago!

Within seconds from their doorstep, they can reach the shoreline and the fishing boats that sustain them.

But developers constantly try to lure fisher people off their land.

Morning and night, GUIDE works with the fisher people to figure out ways to stay and make their living here.

Now GUIDE is working to purchase a truck, a store, and a refrigerator. It's a sound business venture: Fresher fish will command higher prices at greater distances than women can carry their product on foot.

On January 29th, two days before we leave India, I am able to attend a GUIDE leadership meeting with women from farming villages.

It is not easy to clear this land of its rocks,

to irrigate it,

to transport supplies,

to build farms.

The role of women is essential.

At the leadership meeting, one group presents skits they are performing in villages to prompt discussions about domestic violence.

A family is forcing a young woman to marry her uncle,

who drinks and grows increasingly violent.

The audience feels her anguish and despair. Finally she tries to hang herself.

The story opens up deep feelings.

Some men also participate in the dramas. GUIDE runs experimental "gender labs" where men spend 36 hours at a time, sharing personal experiences and getting in touch with their feelings about patriarchal traditions.

This helps to build greater awareness of men's emotional needs and increases their affirmation of women's equality. GUIDE hopes it will reduce violence against women.

At today's leadership meeting, men show their support by serving a delicious lunch--

nutritious rice and meat sauce with spinach on a plantain leaf and a banana with sweets for dessert.

(We are becoming experts at eating with our fingers--always the right hand!)

While the women resume their meeting, we visit the GUIDE offices

Outside, their sign provides a constant reminder of the values and goals of GUIDE.

Gilbert says that nothing restores him like a green field!

So the seedlings are neatly bagged and ready to share.

Vasantha says she draws nourishment from the people!

For us this has been an unforgettable privilege and an invitation to lifelong friendship.

GUIDE's vision of Peace, Justice, and Equality is one we will carry with us.

They call for:

•Establishing village and block-level committees to monitor and confront violence against women
•Developing effective means to investigate domestic violence
•Creating new awareness in government polices that respond to disasters
•Initiating government action immediately when decisions are made
•Assuring that women participate in these decisions and
•Securing disaster compensation for women

Act now!

We wave goodbye knowing that the people of GUIDE are building a better world with gender justice for these children and many more to come.