Featured this week is the Serene Secular Social Service Society (SSSSS), growing organic solutions for girls in Tamil Nadu, India.
The Sumangali scheme in Tamil Nadu allows teenage girls to work as apprentices in the textile mills for three years. The mills pay the girls half of the minimum wage with the promise that they will receive 35,000 rupees at the end of the contract. Mills target poor girls who are out of school knowing their parents would be more willing to enter in the Sumangali scheme to get money to pay their dowry. At the mills, girls encounter problems including poor safety standards leading to accidents and health problems ranging from asthma to infertility from the persistent high heats in the mills and dust particles that park in their lungs as the girls aren’t given even basic protection like masks. Verbal and mental abuse by floor managers pushing girls to reach impossibly high output levels and being forced to work double and triple shifts leads to mental anguish, exhaustion and more accidents. In the end, many girls are not paid the promised bonus. Often parents and girls are unable to read the contract they signed, and the mill will concoct a bogus story about the girl breaking some rule—like fighting with other girls or stealing from the mill—rendering the contract void.
The Serene Secular Social Service Society (SSSSS) has been successful in raising awareness about the Sumangali scheme with less and less families pushing their daughters into this work. Some mills have even stopped using this scheme. The need for work still exist, though, so SSSSS is helping girls over 18 negotiate a fair daily rate and is also looking to start a union for young women, led by young women. SSSSS also offers skills training in tailoring and supports girls in starting their own businesses to offer girls an alternative to working in the mills. For those girls who were cheated out of the bonus, SSSSS is pursuing legal action—103 cases have been brought against the mill, with 22 favorable outcomes for the girls so far. SSSSS continues to lobby the government and often takes the results of their surveys to the press to educate the community.
It was a series of unfortunate events that landed Chitra Devi in a textile mill when she was 14 years old. Her father couldn’t get enough work on nearby farms. The family dug a well in an effort to start farming their own little parcel of land, but there was no water. Her grandparents became very ill and needed medicine and care. Her brother came down with a mysterious malady that Chitra calls a “brain fever” and needed expensive medicine. Dowry, usually in the form of gold jewelry, was needed to pay for Chitra and her sisters’ marriages. Her mother sold her dowry jewels, but it wasn’t enough. Finally they took loans from a local moneylender, binding them in cycle of never ending payments—the family is barely able to pay off the monthly interest much less the principle loan.
“So all these conditions led to the mill,” sighs Chitra. “Mother went to do millwork first and then she told me it is a tough job, but you have to join.” On paper it looked like a good deal for Chitra and her sister to start working in the textile mills. The broker promised them a daily rate of 50 rupees (US$0.83) and a bonus of 35,000 rupees (US$580.00) at the end of the three-year contract under the Sumangali scheme. Chitra and her family saw the bonus as a way to get out from under the usury practices of the moneylender. In the end, though, Chitra and her sister were both denied their bonuses.
With no support or avenues to take action against the mills, the girls returned to their villages without the bonus and with a slew of health problems. “People in my community abuse us because of our poverty and don’t respect us,” says Chitra. “Only after we all go for a job and earn will they respect us, but after working in the mill out situation is unchanged.” With no earning prospects on the horizon, Chitra was married to her maternal uncle—a long seated cultural practice in this area of Tamil Nadu—and went to live with him at the home of his parents, also Chitra’s grandparents. “At my in-laws I woke up every morning at 4 a.m. and was the only person to cook, clean, fetch the water and take care of the cow—and I also did agriculture work! Grandmother would complain that I wasn’t fast enough, that I didn’t know how to farm properly,” says Chitra. With her grandmother’s constant berating, Chitra felt her life was becoming increasingly unbearable and could see no way to change her situation. Because she was no longer earning money, her grandparents eventually felt she was not contributing enough to their household and sent her back to her parents.
It was around this time that SSSSS was conducting a survey in the villages, identifying girls who were victims of the Sumangali scheme. Chitra was interviewed and was then invited to participate in SSSSS’s programs. Chitra started the tailoring course. Being a grassroots organization, built by and from within the community, SSSSS makes an effort to get to know each of the girls to identify her unique needs and challenges to provide specific solutions. Through conversations with Chitra, SSSSS learned that she dreamed of being a policewoman, specifically to help other girls who are married before they are 18 years old, the legal age of marriage in India.
“I am encouraged by SSSSS to do police training and they gave me all the information and the books,” says Chitra. “Without this organization I wouldn’t know how to go about becoming a police officer. No one should get married at an early age. Girls should be educated. Marriage should be arranged according to their wish. When I am a police officer I will help girls like me however I can—they should not be tortured by their in-laws like I was.”
Chitra was accepted into the police training course and is looking forward to earning a salary of 20,000 rupees (US$330.00) per month—a sizable increase from the meager wages of mill work. Her salary will go to paying back the loan taken for her dowry, and eventually Chitra hopes to be able to support her parents.
As Chitra is excitedly telling me about her desire to become a policewoman under a tree outside her parent’s home, about 40 men wander up the dirt road. They stop when they reach the house, looking confused to see me sitting with Chitra and some SSSSS staff. An old man, with a deeply lined and stern face, goes to talk to Chitra’s parents. “My grandfather has come to take me back to their house to live with my husband,” explains Chitra. The other men have come as community enforcers, called to action by Chitra’s grandfather. “My grandparents didn’t want me when I wasn’t bringing any money into their house, but now they don’t want me to become a police officer because I will be self-reliant and they won’t be able to dominate me. So they want to call me back to prevent me from doing the training.”
SSSSS staff go to speak with Chitra’s parents and grandparents. The mass of men look increasingly bored, some squatting in the dirt, others walking back down the dirt path. Their plan will not work with the presence of SSSSS staff and myself. Chitra remains confident in the face of the lackadaisical mob. “I am not ready to go,” says Chitra. “With the support of my parents and SSSSS I know I can achieve my dream to become a policewoman and take charge of my own life.”
Organic solutions are growing at SSSSS, but more resources are needed. M. Jeeva and the girls of SSSSS want to know:
What are some activities or trainings SSSSS can use to build up the leadership abilities of young women so they can confidently form and lead a union for young women working in the textile mills?
Help seed the change by posting your answer in the comments section! Your answer will not only help SSSSS, but it could be worth US$2,000 for this group. In May 2014, two of the most innovative answers posted by readers throughout the life of this blog will be chosen, and donations will be made to the organizations that elicited the best two answers.
Indian girls and women who live in poor, rural areas have a particularly difficult life with limited choices. Due to lack of education and opportunity, many find themselves married in their teenage years. For girls, this is a condemning path of dropping out of school, teenage pregnancy, dependency, abuse and malnutrition. In the region Nishtha serves, like many in rural India, most girls and women live on less that $2 a day.
Nishtha’s kishore bahinis adolescent girl groups meet every Sunday to discuss everything from girls’ rights to personal hygiene, stage dramas in the village to educate community members against child labor and child marriage, and protest when girls are taken out of school. Together they learn to become empowered individuals, find support in each other and power as a group.
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