It Takes a Village: Lessons in Rural Empowerment (Read More)

October 10, 2012
It Takes a Village: Lessons in Rural Empowerment (Read More)

Through the Chaminade Rural Development Project, the Marianists are helping a tribal group in rural India create a healthy future.

By Jan D. Dixon

Every weekday morning, Jyoti Soy, a third-grade teacher, catches a ride from her home on the outskirts of Ranchi — a city in north central India — to the village of Binda. It is a jarring commute along narrow country roads that takes more than an hour. While most people leave their village in India for work in the city, Jyoti is willing to make the trek back to her home village for two reasons: She loves teaching and since the Marianists took charge of the Roro Binda Upper Primary School where she works, she has witnessed an enormous change.

“Since the Marianists arrived, we have more teachers, many more students, better equipment and a brand-new school,” she says. When Jyoti started teaching in 1992, there were 20 students. By the time the Marianists took over in 2007, the student body had dwindled to seven. Today, the school boasts an enrollment of 350 children in grades one through five and will add a middle school next year. In 2010, the Marianists completed construction of a new school and a residence hall for students who live too far to commute.

But it’s more than the building and facilities that have impressed Jyoti. “It’s the way the brothers work with the local people, the way they listen and open people’s minds. For the first time, many parents are thinking about the future of their children,” she says. She believes it is a future brimming with hope.

An integrated view

While the school has drawn the admiration of many, it is the cornerstone on which the Marianists are building a larger vision: Chaminade Rural Development Project — an integrated program of education, adult training, microfinancing and job creation initiatives to address the issues of rural poverty and provide the community much needed life support.

“The school is a key component of this project because a quality education is the most important thing we can do to help people rise out of poverty,” says Marianist Brother Augustus Surin, district superior of the District of India. “But education alone isn’t enough.”

Binda and the surrounding 84 villages it serves are comprised of tribal people who speak only their native language. Many are illiterate, have no job skills and no way to earn a living. “Most work as subsistence farmers, but there is never enough. It is a difficult life. I know because I grew up there,” says Brother Augustus. “As a child, I didn’t get many of my needs met.”

The Marianists in Binda knew that any successful rural development strategy must address the needs of the whole family.

“This project and school are an enormous investment of our resources,” says Brother Augustus, noting that four Marianists work and live on the campus where the school is housed. Most of them grew up in rural areas and understand what it means to be poor. “We are committed to doing everything we can to help people stay in their villages. Once they leave for the cities, they usually end up in slums where life becomes even more difficult — and a lot more dangerous.”

From the grassroots up

In 1997, the Marianists were encouraged by the Catholic diocese in the region to conduct a survey to assess the needs of tribal people. Binda and surrounding areas have been home to Roman Catholicism since the mid-1800s. The brothers went door-to-door interviewing people, listening and gathering ideas. By 2002, Marianist Brothers Augustus and Peter Samad — having grown up in the area — began teaching at the school. Brother Peter is now headmaster. With other Marianists, they began outlining plans for the rural development initiative, a project 10 years in the making.

Listening to people and translating their needs into grass-root programs that provide immediate relief and support have been important to the success of the project. “Looking back, we can show them these were their ideas. It’s their project,” says Brother Augustus.

Today the Marianists are seeing whole families involved: the father taking computer classes, the mother in training, the children in school and the family attending the local parish. “This is the model we want to build on,” he says.

But in the beginning, the Marianists needed to help people with their most pressing issue: how to generate income, especially for women.

The ugly face of human trafficking

Roughly 300 million young people ages 13 to 35 live in rural India. Most will be forced to leave their villages to find work in the cities. For young people from Binda who have no job skills, the prospects are dim.

They are even worse for young women. “The playing field for women in India is so uneven,” says Father Jack McGrath, assistant district superior, District of India. “Women are not seen as equals with men, and they are ill-prepared for a world that is dangerous for them.”

The dangers come in many forms. A fairly common one occurs when “agents come here promising girls jobs in the big cities,” says Noel Purty, a tailoring instructor for the development project. “They get caught in human trafficking and end up working as prostitutes in Mumbai or Delhi.”

This happens in many parts of rural India where “families see girls as a financial burden and so these young women go to the cities looking for work,” says Marianist Father Joseph Barla, who recently took charge of the rural development project. The girls are easy targets for thugs who entrap them and sell them as sex slaves. “They are treated so badly,” says Father Joseph.

Adds Brother Augustus: “The people are aware of it, the Church is concerned about it and we as a society must find a way to stop it. The most important thing we can do is provide these girls job opportunities in their villages.”

Lack of job opportunities is one cause of rural poverty. Another is early marriage. A girl who doesn’t attend school or marries young is at far greater risk of dying in childbirth, bearing more children than she wants, being beaten and abandoned by her husband and remaining in poverty — along with her family.

Studies show that educating girls and women improves the quality of life for an entire village and is a solid financial investment. “When a mother is trained and gets a job, she has a steady source of income,” says Brother Augustus. “That income becomes working capital to save or invest. For the first time, she is empowered and has money to invest in her family or community. It is changing how women view themselves. ”

Streams of income

From the early surveys, the Marianists learned that people wanted programs that would help their children learn a trade. The project was launched three years ago and now sponsors a tailoring center to teach sewing skills and will soon add carpentry. They also built a computer lab that has graduated two groups of students.

“We have only five computers,” says Father Joseph, who teaches software applications and Internet basics. “We have a long waiting list of students who want to take this class. Young people know they must learn to use a computer. It’s a ticket to a much larger world.”

The goal of the training is to equip students for jobs. But because there are so few job opportunities locally, the Marianists opened a tailoring shop in Binda where graduates from the program can earn money sewing piecework, such as school uniforms.

Other income generating projects have been spawned by the 84 self-help groups started by the development project. There are about 15 members in each group. Each member contributes a small amount of money to a collective account. The Marianists then help each group set up a bank account and apply for loans.

The money from the loans has been used by the groups to start a chicken farm, a grocery store, a honey business and other enterprises. Besides new businesses and income, this form of microfinancing has sparked something more powerful: ingenuity, self-esteem, hope.

A vibrant future

Jyoti Soy is excited about the new enterprises in Binda and the way they are improving people’s lives. But it is the change in her own life that amazes her most.

“For the first time, I feel like a real teacher,” she says, reflecting on the quality of the school.

Brother Augustus is hopeful that other projects will be launched, including legal aid services, environmental awareness workshops, a high school — even a college. He predicts this is just the beginning: “In the coming days, we believe these young people and their communities will flourish. We have already seen changes in behavior and an excitement that tells us this work is alive.”

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