“The difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing would suffice to solve most of the world’s problems.” –Mahatma Gandhi
These words are hanging on enlarged, laminated paper in the main conference room of the NGO office in Udaipur Rajasthan, India.
These words also accurately summarize my experience with the NGO.
In many ways I did see how the NGO followed the ideas in this quote.
The NGO’s programs all share a common thread of empowerment as they aim to help provide children, youth, workers, and entire communities with the support, knowledge, and resources to take action and address the myriad of different challenges and problems in their communities.
While spending time with the Women’s Resource Center, I met women leaders who have been able to learn, grow, and give back to their village communities by helping women and families in need.
By participating in Women’s Empowerment workshops, I have seen how the NGO is helping to guide and to empower women to become active and participating members in their villages and communities.
Unfortunately I have also seen how several of the NGO programs are capable of so much more.
Throughout my time with the NGO, I grew incredibly frustrated with the realities of the NGO’s domestic violence safe house and the Women’s Resource Center.
While I acknowledge that the Udaipur safe house is the only safe house in the city region for domestic violence victims and that the safe house has been and currently is providing a safe haven for many women and families, I also can’t help but feel disappointed by the lack of services and programs for families to learn how to heal and to be empowered.
Unfortunately due to communication and scheduling issues, I was not able to speak to many of the staff and I therefore do not completely understand what is and isn’t happening at the safe house. At the same time, by simply spending time at the shelter, talking to the women, reading reports and documentation, and talking to other NGO volunteers, it is clear to me that the safe house is capable of doing so much more.
One potential solution could be to utilize volunteers to help develop and implement programs.
Throughout my time with the NGO, I was surprised to discover that there were no volunteers directly assigned to the safe house; rather, all of us who did spend time at the shelter did so on our own volition and during our free time. Since volunteers are consistently interested in the safe house, I believe that the NGO can improve the safe house and its services by assigning volunteers to directly plan, develop, and implement different educational and empowerment programs for the safe house residents.
From my experiences at the Women’s Resource Center and my conversations with women leaders, I also have learned how difficult it can be to implement programs in villages that directly challenge established traditions, cultural values and norms, and ways of life.
Program implementation is far more difficult than I could ever imagine as international NGOs have to balance competing ideas, cultures, traditions, norms, and values from the countries that fund the NGO and the communities that the NGO is trying to help. These challenges are then further coupled with time, funding, staffing, volunteer availability and biases, and a myriad of other implementation challenges.
I have learned that because of these issues programs are often very different in practice than the program’s original vision and plan.
I know that with more training for the women leaders and the village communities and with increased NGO investment in the Women’s Resource Centers and the safe house, these programs will continue to positively impact village life and help women and families.
My time in India has also helped me to continue to explore my own strength and resilience.
I have been able to adapt and thrive in the face of numerous challenges as I remain positive and approach my negative experiences as opportunities to learn and to grow.
I have become more aware of my own privilege and my own cultural biases.
I struggled to understand many cultural ideas and practices about women’s status and expected behavior in both the private and public spheres. I heard stories about how women were abused and abandoned by their husbands because they were unable to produce a male child and I was reminded of the disturbing statistics of domestic violence, sexual assault, and rape.
I explored my concepts of love and marriage while attending the wedding ceremonies of three different arranged marriages.
I explored my different identities and the consequences of these identities as I was treated differently because my hair color and skin color made my foreign identity and “otherness” undeniable.
My time in India was also filled with many new experiences that resulted in so many wonderful memories.
I learned about a completely different way of life and bonded with women and families in the rural villages of Rajasthan.
I learned how to take a bucket shower. I then learned how to use the same bucket to wash my clothes.
I tried a variety of different new foods, ate mostly vegetarian meals for the first time in my life, and even attempted to learn how to cook a few traditional Indian dishes.
I explored stunning temples.
I saw beautiful sights.
I experienced two overnight “sleeper” buses and I survived potentially unsafe driving through the mountains and hills of Rajasthan.
I explored the “golden” city of Jaisalmer.
I spent Valentine’s Day weekend stargazing, camping, and riding a camel in a desert about 40 kilometers from the Pakistan border.
My Valentine was a lovely (yet smelly) camel named Rajoo.
I met so many wonderful people who I feel privileged to have in my life.
And finally, I have been able to learn, grow, and reflect in a way that is helping me to not only acknowledge what I am capable of, but to also do more and become more than I ever thought was possible.