SAN JOSE, Calif. — Savitri Devi was just 10 when her family married her off to a teenaged man.
“I was in fifth grade when I got married. I wanted to continue my studies but my family wouldn’t let me,” Devi — who had traveled from Uttarakhand to speak at the America India Foundation’s 18th annual Bay Area gala here March 16 — told India-West on the sidelines of the glittering evening event, which raised $1.5 million for the organization, including pledges and sponsorships.
Devi comes from a family of 22. “Education was never a priority for us,” she said, noting that immediate needs took precedence.
After she got married, her young husband supported his wife into finishing her education to the 10thstandard. “‘Times are changing,’ he said. He wanted me to earn and support our family,’” said Devi.
Devi said she wanted to continue on to college but got pregnant at the age of 18. Her first pregnancy was painful: she spent five days in labor before giving birth at home.
India’s National Rural Health Mission, which aims to provide health care to underserved rural areas, was introduced in Devi’s village in 2007. Because she was the only young woman in her community with an education, Devi was selected as an Accredited Social Health Activist. ASHA volunteers receive support and resources from AIF’s Maternal and Newborn Survival Initiative, including training in neonatal and newborn care. The program, which received the best health initiative award at the 2018 India Health and Wellness Summit, has decreased neonatal mortality by 46 percent; infant mortality by 39 percent; and under-five child mortality rates by 44 percent.
“I thank you for your support in helping me save the lives of babies and mothers,” Devi told the packed audience at the gala, which celebrated her with a long-standing ovation.
Devi, now the mother of four, told India-West she hopes to see her daughter attend college. Her eldest son is enrolled in a polytechnic college, she said.
The evening also featured Babita Rana, who too had traveled from Uttarakhand to speak at the gala. Rana is a graduate of AIF’s Market Aligned Skills Training program, which trains disadvantaged youth in skills needed in the Indian labor pool. Youth are trained to work in retail, basic IT, healthcare, and hospitality, among a variety of occupations. Rana is one of five sisters, who all live in a rural village with no road connections. Their father passed away when the girls were quite young, leaving the mother to shoulder the burden of caring for five daughters.
Rana said her mother took loans from relatives to ensure that each of her daughters finished their educations. After Rana graduated, she joined AIF’s MAST program, with the aim of helping her mother. She learned to make Indian handicrafts and now earns Rs. 3,000 a month.
The young woman’s dream is to open her own boutique in the future. MAST has created 100,000 jobs for disadvantaged youth. Rana also received support from the Shahnaz Taplin Women’s Empowerment Fund.
AIF co-founder Lata Krishnan kicked off the gala with a tribute to her Kerala-born mother, who had passed away a few days earlier. “She was a force of nature in our family,” said Krishnan emotionally. “She had a fierce love for her friends and family and she truly believed in financial independence for women and girls and empathy for those who have less,” said Krishnan, CFO at Shah Capital Partners.
“Poverty is multi-dimensional and so is AIF’s strategy,” said Krishnan. “We draw on resources both in the U.S. and India to serve India’s disenfranchised,” she said, noting that AIF has partnered with 220 organizations in India.
Krishnan lauded AIF’s Learning and Migration Program, which has created hostels alongside government schools for the children of migrant laborers so that they can continue their studies as their parents travel for work. LAMP has impacted 468,502 children since its inception.
Krishnan also lauded MANSI for training 4,000 ASHA volunteers to help 125,000 young mothers; and MAST for training 140,000 young minds.
Mona Shah, director of the Health Funders Partnership of Orange County and Maya Patel, president of the Tarsadia Foundation were honored with AIF Service Awards.
Sumir Chadha, co-founder and managing director of Westbridge Capital, received AIF’s Leadership Award. In his acceptance speech, Chadha spoke of visiting India in February and seeing the LAMP first-hand.
“LAMP breaks the cycle of migrational poverty,” said Chadha, noting that children who live in the AIF LAMP hostels are encouraged to keep in touch with their parents.
Sophia Nesamoney, a senior at Castilleja School in Palo Alto, Calif., was honored with AIF’s Youth Leadership Award; she also received a standing ovation for her work.
Nesamoney, 17, is the author of “The Other Side of the Bridge,” which was inspired by her trips to India and observing the multiple challenges village women face.
“AIF is where I learned how powerful voices can be when they are heard,” said Nesamoney. “AIF has helped me become a more compassionate person, but the award should go to women who work on the ground every day,” she said.
Performances by the Sa Dance Company and Aki Kumar rounded out the evening.