Tsering’s Fellowship is made possible by the Rural India Supporting Trust.
Compared to the twists, the turns, and the slow and bumpy climb into the mountainous terrain of my two previous survey districts, the relative ease of navigating Haridwar district’s dusty flat and paved roads was a pleasant surprise. Mini-rickshaw or e-rickshaws ferried us with ease from the main Haridwar-Delhi Highway into the hidden villages miles away from the bustle; shrouded behind rows and rows of rectangular green wheat crops shaded by rows of giant poplar trees, we finally arrived at the village. Along the way, little girls in hijabs and little boys in white caps walk the lonely road towards a white infrastructure. As I stare at the backs of the little crowd as we pass by them, one of the field supervisors mention: “They are headed to the madrasa.”
I would soon discover what a madrasa was. A field supervisor who’s conducting the survey with me approaches me and asks, “Sharing [Tsering], what do write for level of education? She went to the madrasa before menarche.” Surprised to discover another education system—albeit religion based, I didn’t know how to reply because a religious education is nonetheless an education. After consulting with the field team, we found a compromise by estimated the years of madrasa attendance by matching it with the government school’s annual year. However, the cross-cultural miscommunication of the survey language didn’t stop there; although Hindi was the main medium of communication in the previous two districts, Haridwar’s Muslim population spoke Urdu. Despite the vast similarities in Urdu and Hindi, particularly when spoken, the similarities end when written. So, an intelligent and articulate high schooler couldn’t answer the questions asked of her in the written survey—she had to be read the questions aloud.
Yet on the opposite spectrum, numerous late teens were easily found fetching water, cooking lunch over mud stoves, and tending to the livestock when we did rounds into the villages. It was surprising to find the magnitude of young teenage girls at home during school hours; it served as a huge contrast to the scarcity of young girls at home in villages in the mountains. The common factor that seemed to designate these young girls to this fate was reaching menarche – that first period, the sign of womanhood. Seen as dangerous to the girl’s innocence and the family reputation to have a menstruating girl going outside the home to attend school, girls quit school upon getting their period. So, bright and young girls sit all day at home doing chores while their male counterparts attend school – thus the opportunity for education and a future denied.
As much as it bothered me to see these young girls grounded and clipped of their wings, I felt hopeful that within this space that AIF’s Maternal and Newborn Survival Initiative (MANSI) is able to step in and work to empower the women and the community. MANSI’s steadfast commitment brought to fruition reciprocal engagement with their villages. Upon entering the village, young women often flock towards the MANSI field supervisor, greeting her as didi and serving as guides into the village. MANSI’s recognition within the villages speaks volumes about the community building that they have achieved towards promoting health in the rural pockets. Young and old both recognize MANSI and their work; yet, in one of these in field visits, I witnessed the developmental debacle first hand. An older woman in her 50s approached the MANSI field supervisor and me as we were finishing up our surveys with the adolescent girls seated the wooden cots outside. Perhaps jealous or perhaps frustrated by the attention on the younger generation, the older woman asked why we’re conducting the survey. Time again, we explain the reason for the survey, what we intend to do with the survey while offering the woman the consent form to read for herself since it explains the study in much more detail. With merely a glimpse of the form, she flashes the paper towards us and begins her tirade that we NGOs are always helping the young and never helping the old. I have hip problems and back problems too, but do you survey me and offer me help? Mediation and pacifying techniques were not effective to qualm the woman’s rant. Our suggestions of consulting doctors, and even recommending specific doctors, went unheard. Any response on our part only seemed to escalate the woman’s anger and length of her tirade.
We quickly gathered our things and thanked the young girls and families for hosting us as we quietly made our exit. This episode reignited for me the larger question of what an NGO’s role is in community development; a question discussed with my fellow AIF Fellows while burning the midnight oil at Orientation and Midpoint. One the one hand, NGOs fill a need like providing for the vulnerable population of rural woman and girls in MANSI’s case. However, on the other hand, are NGOs creating dependency for the communities they work with? The elder woman to me represented the dependency that NGOs can create within the communities they work with.
This dependency seems to allow an individual to relinquish their individual responsibility over their well-being. Thus, how can NGOs work to empower their respective communities and provide a needed service, but not create dependency? Going back to my late-night discussions with AIF Fellows, NGOs tend to have entry strategies into communities, but how often do we hear of exit strategies? Is this intentional or by accident? With risk of deviating into the more cynical side of this discussion: are NGOs serving as peddlers of information (to use the words of another AIF Fellow) and serving their own self-interests to stay relevant? Are NGOs in some way exploiting the very people they have committed to serve and empower?
I do not have the answers to these questions, nor have I found enlightenment in the last seven months here. However, what I have discovered through this journey is the ability to pick and probe at the grey areas in the development field—an equally significant skill. Perhaps an easy response to the question of dependency would be to say that we strive to empower the individual towards self-care and self-advocacy. However, that answer risks being simplistic if it doesn’t take into consideration the complicated factors of the cultural, political, and societal context that we work in. As many development professionals know, changing attitude and behaviors can take a lifetime and there are nuances, perhaps subtle in some places, that make such a blanket statement ineffective. So, how do we work within this contradiction?