Earning Respect

									Charlie Plain |
																			June 22, 2015

The first time School of Public Health student Eliza Cowan met with women from the “untouchables” caste in rural India, she found them to be nothing like their disparaging name implies.

Photo Credit: Eliza Cowan
Photo Credit: Eliza Cowan

“We sat there and they talked at me in their language, did my hair, and gave me dried mango,” says Cowan, a global environmental health student. “They were so welcoming and wanted to interact.”

The untouchables are officially known as the Dalit caste and are a mixed ethnicity group shunned by Indian society, and consequently, suffer from extreme poverty, discrimination, violence, and oppression.

Last summer, Cowan visited with the women while assisting with a program geared to help them earn more money in agricultural markets—and raise their self-worth in the process.

Threats and hardships

“We had to get special clearance from the district police chief because there are no foreigners who go to the remote villages where the women live,” said Cowan. “There are some terrorist groups who raid the communities.”

The Dalits Cowan visited live in the districts of Kalahandi and Kanhamal, India, where they not only face isolation and external threats, but also household hardships.

Eliza Cowan
Eliza Cowan

The women are typically confined to their homes where they’re expected to silently cook, clean, and take care of the household. The few who do work outside of the home often have jobs in agriculture and are paid poorly.

The Dalit men have it somewhat better and are typically the primary money-makers. As such, they have absolute authority when it comes to making family decisions and some of them rule with an abusive fist.

Pathways in India

Cowan worked with the Dalits as a part of her degree’s field experience project and on behalf of CARE International, an organization operating relief and development programs for marginalized communities around the world.

CARE hired Cowan to help it evaluate the effectiveness of a program for the Dalits called “Pathways.”

“Pathways focuses on empowering women and trains them in agriculture, small-business development, and teaches them how to work with money and use loans,” says Cowan.

The program specifically aims to increase the women’s access to local agricultural markets. In India, such markets are male-dominated and women have trouble purchasing supplies at fair prices and selling their products for what they’re worth.

“Pathways also works with men by urging them to resist using violence, curb their alcohol consumption, and support their wives by giving them more freedom,” says Cowan.

During the audit, Cowan’s duties included training local staff on how to conduct focus groups and gather information from program participants. She also synthesized all the details into a final evaluation report.

Confident in the results

Cowan says the audit shows that Pathways is indeed helping the Pathways participants make more money and have a greater say in personal and family matters.

“The women feel confident and optimistic about their own and their children’s future as a result of earning an income from farming and contributing to the household financially,” says Cowan. “Also, now that the women have their own income, their husbands are respecting them more and allowing them to contribute to decisions regarding household finances.“

What’s more, the women are becoming more vocal in the community and no longer accepting gender-based violence and alcohol consumption among men as facts of life.

Cowan learned something else from the audit as well regarding the role of women in communities.

“I’ve grown to understand that strong, bold women are the foundation for holistic, sustainable community development,” says Cowan.

As Cowan ultimately sees it, when women, like the Dalits, have the same opportunity to make money as men do—and men value women enough to support them in doing it—together they’ll create healthy, mutually-respectful communities with the power to dependably thrive from within.

~ Post by Charlie Plain

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