Empowering women in India from right here
What does it take to change people’s lives? Around $2,700 a month.
For that very modest amount, Brunswick Heads residents Graeme Batterbury and Wendy Royston have been running a charity in rural India since 2005 that operates a Reproductive and Child Health program and eight Literacy Centres for adolescent girls who would otherwise receive no formal education.
They work under the name of Women’s Empowerment in Indian Villages (WEIV) and to date they have worked with 28,000 households in Guraru Block, an area in the state of Bihar. This extraordinary work is financed mostly through local monthly donations, supplemented by the couple’s Lismore Carboot market stall. As they reach retirement, the aim is that the project will be funded entirely by donors.
To raise awareness, and to encourage ongoing donations that contribute to pay the wages of Indian staff, the couple have organised the Shakti Women’s Empowerment Festival at The Byron Theatre. Friday 21 will feature musical performances by The Loveys, Sharny Russell, Parissa Bouas, Meninas da Lua, Abbie Cardwell and others.
On Saturday 22 September, the festival continues with forums on environmental and social justice, with gentle yoga and an evening Karma Dance, classical Indian dance performance.
The funds pay the wages of the 21 local staff.
Wendy says, ‘I wanted the girls to be able to read and write by the time they were married.’
‘Our target group for the Literacy Centre is 12 – 18 year-olds. The centres run four hours a day from 10am till 2pm. The girls all have home duties so we make sure that the program fits in with that.’
‘One woman said to me: ‘I used to feel like an animal now I feel like a person,’ says Wendy.
‘Literacy empowers women to have some control in their lives – I wanted the girls to be able to know what they are signing if their husband or family put something in front of them. You can sign your organs away in India! It’s also important for women to be able to read contracts and medicines.
The reproductive and child health education is in its fourth year of operation.
‘We run groups of adolescent girls, adolescent boys, pregnant women, women with children, older women plus community groups. We reach about 5,000 people a month.’
The impacts are astounding. ‘Many girls are now standing up to their parents and saying NO to getting married at 16. They are insisting on waiting until 18. We are also working with STI’s, HIV and gender discrimination.’
We work with adolescent boys to try and change the attitudes towards the dowry that must be given by a girl’s family if she is to marry. Wendy believes that the tradition of giving dowry is at the heart of gender discrimination.
‘We are asking the boys to question the system. They see the inequity, but their parents aren’t willing to give up the dowry.
A girl is born and families go Oh no! She is resented as it’s perceived looking after her is ‘tending someone else’s garden’, because she will go to another family and end up looking after them. The benefit of the daughter goes to the in-laws.’
Education around reproductive health has also seen women trying to wait until 21 before their first pregnancy, and trying to leave three years between children to ensure the wellbeing of mother and child is maximised. The centres are also encouraging men who have had families to get vasectomies, a much simpler contraceptive procedure that the tubal ligation performed on women who are then expected to return to household duties immediately after surgery.
WEIV is looking for ongoing support to ensure this valuable program continues to change women’s lives, thus increasing the quality of life for all.
This is a great opportunity to explore, celebrate and promote women’s empowerment and to bring active awareness of the insight, capacity and strengths of women in our society today, while at the same time supporting a local programme that is empowering women in rural India.