Over the Mountain and Through the Woods….

During my last two weeks in India, I gathered my clothing, toiletries, and my courage; packed a small backpack; and left the relative comfort and safety of my NGO campus in Udaipur to begin a multiple day journey in the rural villages in north-western India.

After spending weeks observing and participating in different NGO programs including the only domestic violence shelter in urban Udaipur and a school for children with hearing challenges and learning challenges, I was excited to leave the safety of the guarded NGO campus and explore a program unlike any other that I have ever encountered.

I was going to experience one of the NGO’s reportedly most successful and most respected Women’s Resource Centers (WRC).

The more that I read about, researched, and discussed the WRCs in preparation for my field visits, the more excited I felt.

I learned that a Women’s Resource Center is a conflict resolution outlet for women to address personal and difficult problems with the help of trained women leaders from different village communities. The WRCs are conceptualized to be a place where women leaders are available to help, empower, guide, and advise women with a variety of difficult issues including domestic violence, assault, property disputes, and even accusations of witchcraft. In many cases the WRC forms solutions and helps mediate solutions that result in completed legal actions such as formal legal divorce decrees, contracts, and agreements.

I was beyond excited to have the opportunity to meet the WRC women leaders and to hear the stories of several women who have approached the WRC for help.

I could not wait to get started!

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I arrived at the NGO Jahdol block office after a beautiful, crammed, very bumpy, and slightly terrifying jeep ride through the mountains of Rajasthan.

After settling into my bedroom I made my way to the main room of the NGO campus.

I was surprised to find the room completely filled with women.

All of these women were dressed in conservative, traditional Indian village garb with elaborate and beautiful sarees, ornate shawls, and colorful bangles. Many of them were cradling their infant children in their arms while also managing to diligently write notes on their notepad.

Little did I know I had just entered a women empowerment training course for women in the Jadhol block surrounding villages.

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I spent the next few days with women leaders and women participants as they learned about a variety of different topics including child safety and financial planning.

Within a few minutes of listening to the training, I was struck by the potential impact that these workshops could have in changing the lives of the women, their families, their villages, and their communities.

From talking to many of the women and hearing their translated commentary throughout the workshop sessions and my time in the field, I learned that many of these women came from rural and remote villages.

Most of these women were raised in a society with a strict, traditionalist culture where women were viewed as subordinate to men and therefore would not ordinarily not have much access to any form of education.

And now, here I was in a room filled with women from all over the Jadhol area who were eager to learn. It was incredible to see the women passionately scribbling notes on their notepads and actively participating in discussions by sharing anecdotes about their experiences.

As I now reflect on my time observing the workshops, I am so grateful for the opportunity. Training programs and empowerment programs such as this program help to provide women with the knowledge and resources to become independent, vocal, and involved members of their families, villages, and communities.

After several intense hours of guest speakers, lessons, and discussions I had the opportunity to speak with several of these women and get to know them on a more personal level.

I sat individually with the NGO coordinator and three of the woman leaders and I couldn’t help but smile as they shared their stories about the work that they do and how their work is impacting themselves and their communities.

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G has been a leader with the Women’s Resource Center in Madri for the past year and has been involved in different programs with the NGO for the past 30 to 35 years. She was inspired to become a woman leader with the Women’s Resource Center after spending time listening to women and trying to help them with different problems in an NGO Women’s Self Help Group. As a woman leader G appreciates the opportunity to listen to women’s stories and help women by doing all that she can to resolve a case, even if it means getting involved at the village level, talking to the local panchayat, and approaching the local police. She is proud that the Women’s Resource Center has been developing into a place where women can tell their stories, address problems that might otherwise not be resolved, and challenge negative societal and cultural norms and traditions that disempower women. G believes that women will continue to unite and become empowered with the continued development and growth of the Women’s Resource Center.

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J is a woman leader with the Madri Women’s Resource Center and has two sons and two daughters. As a woman leader she appreciates the opportunity to help villagers with problems that otherwise would be left unresolved because many villagers are unable to pay the high fees needed to bring a case to the local panchayat or police. Being a woman leader has allowed J to financially contribute to her family and to play a respected role in her village and the larger community. J believes that with improved communication and awareness of the Women’s Resource Center within the villages, the center can have a more lasting and positive impact in the village community, the individual lives of women who bring a case to the center, and an impact on the overall status of and empowerment of women throughout the villages.

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S lives with her first son and takes care of her three grandchildren. She started her path toward becoming a woman leader by getting involved in NGO local meetings and trainings a few years ago. S decided to become a woman leader after becoming more and more interested in listening to and understanding the many different stories and problems that women in villages experience. Becoming a woman leader has allowed S to financially provide for her family; listen to the individual stories of women in her community; understand the variety of problems that women in the villages encounter; and overall help to empower, motivate, and advise women.

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As I continued to talk to the women, I was struck by G’s passion and commitment. Although I had many concerns about the WRC and some of the women leaders, seeing how much G invests of herself and her life into her role as a woman leader gives me hope for the development of the WRC in the Jahdol block. I am confident and optimistic that progress will continue to be made if the NGO invests more time, energy, and resources into different programs that work within the villages.

After having dinner with the women, I was then invited to the main room to spend time with all of the women before they went to sleep.

As I walked into the room one of the WRC woman leaders invited me to sit with her, her daughters, and her granddaughter.

Right as I sat down, G sat next to me and started to play with my hair. She commented that my piggy tail french braids were very similar to a type of hairstyle that women in her village used to wear when she was a young woman.

She then found a small, cracked comb and began to comb and braid my hair into an interesting and beautiful configuration.

Just as she tied the last braid, several of the women began to ask me questions about my marital status.

They seemed surprised to learn that at the age of 22 I was not married and had no plans nor desire to be married in the near future.

After awkwardly trying to explain American dating culture, we then spoke about my family, my experiences in college, and what I hope for my future.

The women seemed fascinated with my plans to become a lawyer and work to change different laws and policies in the United States.

When I finished explaining the work that I have been doing to help abuse victims back home, one of the women leaders gave me a big hug and said “we are so glad to have someone like you here to listen to our stories and understand what our problems are”.

I was completely taken aback by her kind and supportive comment. That moment meant more to me than she will ever know.

During so much of my time in India I have felt like an outsider. Because I looked noticeably different and foreign I would often receive many long stares, locals would try to sell something to me for up to 100 times what the locals would pay for the same item or service, and some people would even sneak and take photos of me without my consent.

With those experiences weighing on my mind, It was nice to have this feeling of acceptance.

Throughout the night, these women made me feel so appreciated, valued, and welcomed during a time where I felt incredibly vulnerable.

After talking for a bit more, one woman asked if I could sing a “traditional” song for them in English.

A traditional song?

I had no idea what to sing!

A lullaby? A hymn? A Christmas song? My county’s national anthem?

I sat there in silence with everyone looking at me for about two minutes until I finally asked my NGO partner for advice.

She suggested that I sing something with meaningful lyrics so that she could translate the lyrics to the women.

Okay. I can do this.

Meaningful lyrics?!

I struggled to think of a song, but suddenly my favorite song popped into my mind.

I cleared my throat and then I started to sing John Legend’s “All of Me”.

After the first verse, the women started clapping along and swaying in response to my singing.

I couldn’t help but smile as one of my favorite songs turned into something so much more.

By the end of the second chorus many women were humming along and everyone in the room was clapping.

As I finished, one of the older women in the room started to sing traditional songs.

After a few words, many of the other women joined in and everyone started to clap again.

I clapped along to the rhythm and smiled when I learned the meaning of the songs while my friend translated in-between verses.

One song was focused on the heart. The song described how the heart is the entity through which everything else in the body is made and that everything we do stems from the power of our heart.

It was beautiful.

That evening with the women has become one of my favorite memories in India.

I then spent the next few days with the women leaders as we traveled to different villages to visit the Women’s Resource Center and document the stories of families who have accessed the WRC for help.

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I documented the stories of two families who have experienced domestic violence and have received help from the Women’s Resource Center.

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L currently lives with her parents, her youngest daughter, and her sister in a small hamlet of Madri in Jhadol block. Four years ago L returned to live with her parents after leaving her husband because of his drinking problems and issues of emotional and financial abuse. She approached the Women’s Resource Center for help with a legal separation and recovery of stolen property and money from her husband. After negative experiences with the local panchayat and even though her case is still currently ongoing she is thankful for the help, guidance, and support of the Women Leaders at the Madri Women’s Resource Center and hopes to finally achieve justice.

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M described her daughter K’s experience with Madri Women’s Resource Center. After serious physical abuse from her husband and her husband’s family, financial abuse, emotional abuse, and her husband’s family stealing her money and jewelry, K escaped and returned home to Bhalvalpura in Jhadol block to live with her parents and siblings. After four years K reached out to the Women’s Resource Center to help obtain a legal separation from her husband after he acquired a second wife and to receive stolen property and money back from her husband’s family. With the support and advice of the women leaders, K’s case was successfully resolved. She received a formal document of separation from her husband, received her jewelry back, and received a payment of 16, 032 rupees from her husband and his family. Because of the Women’s Resource Center,  was able to successfully escape and resolve her situation of domestic violence and she now also has the opportunity to remarry and lead a better life.

By listening to the families’ stories and comments from the women leaders, I was shocked by the reality of domestic violence in the villages as I learned that more than half of all women experience domestic violence in India.

Unfortunately, most women never receive the help, services, nor resources that they need. I have heard disturbing stories of how the local panchayat, the local governing conflict resolution group, fails to listen to women’s issues and does not offer women a safe space to share their problems. Also, the police charges an exorbitant amount of money to resolve any problems and so without financial resources, most women are unable to seek help from the police.

Victims of domestic violence also face a myriad of barriers within their culture and community. The nature of traditional gender norms and expectations leave most women feeling disempowered as they view their only options to be either to stay with their partner or to live with their parents.

In this way even though the Women’s Resource Center has many challenges and problems, it is clear that this program is truly making a difference in the lives of women and families. The WRC offers many women the only opportunity to have their story heard and to actively seek justice.

Overall, my trip to the villages of rural Rajasthan was one of the most rewarding experiences of my time in India.

Despite learning so much about my project and despite some incredible memories, some moments were very challenging and difficult as I experienced a myriad of emotions.

In some moments I felt lost.

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I was relying solely on a friend from the NGO to translate for me and I often did not know what was going on and what people were saying when we encountered travel difficulties and challenges.

In some moments I felt overwhelmed.

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After my first visit with a family in a village, I became stranded with two women leaders and my NGO partner in a remote village. We then had to walk more than 15 kilometers through the hills of rural Rajasthan to the closest main village.

In other moments I felt afraid.

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At one point I was crammed into a small jeep with more than forty people in or on it to visit the village of Madla. Also, on the way back to the main NGO campus in Udaipur my bus stopped to collect all of the survivors from a bus accident.

In other moments I felt very uncomfortable.

On several occasions my foreign appearance attracted unwanted attention.

Despite a few difficult experiences, my time in the village left me feeling thankful, empowered, and resilient.

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After experiencing challenging and difficult moments, I felt resilient as I continued my journey with optimism and positivity.

After hearing all of the women’s stories and seeing their lives in the villages I feel empowered to continue to do all that I can to help others and make a difference in the lives of children and families.

After seeing the realities of a very different way of life and a different culture I feel so thankful for everything in my life.

I am thankful that I have been raised with the fundamental concept that women should have the freedom, power, and autonomy to do anything and everything.

I am thankful that I have the freedom to choose what I do in my life, to fall in love, and to make mistakes.

I am thankful that I have the opportunity to explore my passions, my dreams, and my interests through this year of travel and beyond.

Finally, I am thankful that I have a continuously growing, strong, and supportive network of family and friends who believe in me and encourage me to follow my dreams.

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