Stories of Service Day 4

Each year a cohort of fellows embark on a 10-month journey to serve communities on the ground as part of the AIF Clinton Fellowship Program. This year, given the restrictions arising from the COVID-19 pandemic, the cohort was composed of only Indian Fellows, with a total of 11 fellows going to 9 different states to work with organizations to help underserved communities. This week we hear from these Fellows as they talk to us about their journey on the ground and the insights they learned along the way. The Stories of Service series ran for four days from July 26 to July 29, with each day featuring a set of Fellows who came together to share their experiences. We are excited that a total of 254 guests from across the world joined us live for these sessions.

On Thursday, July 29, Fellows Trishla Bafna, Tanmoy Talukdar and Shivangi Singh came together to talk about their experiences. The session was moderated by Chandni Wadhwani, Program Manager of the AIF Clinton Fellowship Program. Trishla and Shivangi had served with the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) based out of Dharamshala. Trishla had worked at the Women’s Empowerment Desk at the CTA and her presentation focused on sexual and gender-based violence within the Tibetan community in India. Shivangi had worked with the Department of Education within CTA, called Sherig, and focused her presentation on the projects she had worked on over her Fellowship journey. Tonmoy had worked with Project Potential to help strategize, coordinate and implement their health programs on Tuberculosis (TB) and COVID-19.

Trishla began her presentation by giving a brief overview of her host organization, CTA. CTA serves as the government in exile for the Tibetan community, and has three branches: legislature, judiciary and the executive, which is headed by the president and also has cabinet ministers who hold different powers. The organization, however, is also a non-governmental organization to help communities. She proceeded to talk about the Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV) by the Work Empowerment Desk (WED), and how the WED had set up guidelines for prevention and redressal of SGBV in the community and had set up a hotline for the same. One of Trishla’s main projects was to conduct a research study to examine the status of SGBV in the Tibetan community in India. She talked about the challenges she faced while conducting this study, talking about how she had to gain a lot of bureaucratic approval and had to re-examine the belief that gender equality exists within the community. To overcome these challenges, she changed the narrative and used pilot surveys to formulate questions that were more insightful and gave a true picture of the current situation in the community. Her study found that SGBV is very much prevalent within the community and there needs to be further policies to help identify SGBV cases and provide redressal and support to victims.

SGBV continues to be a challenge across the globe, and Trishla’s presentations showed how pervasive the issue is, and the need for taking measures to help support victims of SGBV. I found her point about changing narratives to be particularly insightful. Her presentation helped me understand how changing the questions we ask and the way we talk about topics, can really help empower the individuals that are suffering and allow them to participate and engage in creating support systems that can prevent such violence and provide adequate support to any victims. Moreover, her presentation highlighted the importance of communities building support systems to ensure victims can talk about the violence that they face and seek the help they require. Understanding the issue within the context of the Tibetan community, was also very interesting, as I didn’t know much about how the community or the Tibetan government worked and getting to know more about that was great.

Shivangi’s presentation started with her project on Video Education to teach entrepreneurship. Under the project, Shivangi worked to get Tibetan entrepreneurs, particularly female entrepreneurs, to speak directly to students through videos to tell them about their experiences and how the students could themselves succeed in setting up their own businesses. The second project she was involved in was developing the gender education curriculum for the CTA. While this was a more long-term project, Shivangi worked to lay the foundation for the project, working on creating an engaging and interactive gender sensitization training curriculum that could be provided to teachers who would implement them in their schools. For this, she conducted a baseline survey to understand current opinions and needs and using that created the curriculum. The third project she worked on was the report on de-stigmatizing vocational training in Tibetan Schools. Currently, there is a large bias against vocational training amongst both parents and students within the Tibetan community. Shivangi conducted a research study talking to teachers, community members, and even people from outside the community to understand the cause of this bias and how it could be changed. She realized there was a focus on the Westernization of education and using that created guidelines for changes that could potentially remove that bias and make vocational training more of a norm. She also conducted a comparative study between the National Education Policy (NEP) launched by the Government of India and the Tibetan Education Policy (TEP) to understand differences and find out policies the TEP could adopt from the NEP. Finally, she talked about her work on gender mainstreaming within Sherig and how she created and implemented a gender mainstreaming checklist to make the department better.

The presentation was very helpful in providing insights into education policy and how it can be used to effect change to improve learning outcomes. The diverse array of projects Shivangi worked on highlighted the ranges of issues that exist within the education space, and the need for an interdisciplinary approach to resolve those issues. I thought her project on de-stigmatizing vocational learning was particularly interesting. I think across India there is a bias against going to vocational school, and I certainly experienced this myself during my educational years in India. Removing this bias, I think can help a lot of young students gain professional skills that can enable them to get jobs, and thereby help resolve the problem of high unemployment that plagues the country, particularly in the aftermath of COVID-19. The work on the gender education curriculum and the education policy programs were also fascinating, as they illustrated how designing teaching modules well can bring a lot of value for students.

For the third presentation of the day, Tonmoy talked about his work as part of the TB Support Program, talking about how the program worked to bring healthcare to people living in remote areas. TB is a contagious disease and continues to plague the world, and eradicating it remains a healthcare priority. One of the biggest challenges in combating TB is the identification of cases. To help with this, Tonmoy and his team trained community health workers who would contact them whenever they suspected a TB case, and someone from the team would then go to the location to make the diagnosis. To make the diagnosis, they would gather samples from the patients and send them to labs to verify the presence of the disease. If the disease was verified, they would provide treatment support to the patients. However, the 2nd wave of COVID-19 in India created a massive challenge for the program as the lockdown restrictions prevented them from going into the field to meet patients. To overcome this challenge, the organization pivoted to working on vaccination, targeting daily wage workers who were most vulnerable to the impacts of COVID. On the ground, they faced a lot of problems in administering vaccines as there was a lot of anti-vaccination sentiment, with some concerns being valid and a lot is based on myths. Tonmoy and his team had to convince people a lot to take the vaccine, and eventually, they did succeed by providing incentives such as extra ration for taking the vaccine. This meant that it cost about Rs. 300 to get someone vaccinated. The scheme was successful, and they were able to vaccinate more than 2000 people.

Healthcare has been something that’s been on all of our minds ever since COVID-19 began. Access to healthcare is incredibly important in fighting COVID-19 and as Tonmoy’s presentation told us, combating other deadly and contagious diseases such as TB. The mobile healthcare model followed by Project Potential, under which the doctors went to the patients seems to have been effective and if replicated could improve medical access within the country. The model also trains a few locals in medical training allowing them to perform preliminary screenings, which can create a sustainable system, by decreasing the amount of resources required to follow such a program. By having local people as the first screening barrier, it reduces the number of higher level professionals – which are harder to c

Hearing about all three fellows’ work was very interesting. You can watch the full session by clicking here.

Devang Laddha is a second-year undergraduate student at the University of Chicago, where he studies Political Science and Economics. His main area of interest is international development. He's originally from Kolkata and very excited by the work AIF is doing, particularly through the Fellowship program and more recently with COVID-19 relief work. Being from India, he's passionate about learning from and helping people back home. During the summer of 2021, Devang worked as an intern for the AIF Fellowship Program through the University of Chicago's Jeff Metcalf Internship Program to support AIF's 20-year anniversary campaign.

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