27 July 2016

World Vision and the 'F' word

World Vision India is stuffed to the gills with feminists.
Top blokes and feminists

Yep. Feminists. 

It's awesome. 

For the purposes of this post let us take Wikipedia's definition of Feminism:
"Feminism is a range of political movements, ideologies, and social movements that share a common goal: to define, establish, and achieve equal political, economic, personal, and social rights for women."
Wikipedia also notes that
"Feminists typically advocate or support the rights and equality of women."
Now I know that Wikipedia doesn't always get it right - but if you trawl through all the available dictionaries you'll find that the above is a pretty good summary.
I know that some people in Australia are conflicted by the role of feminism in our day to day lives, not recognising sometimes that white privilege defines our perception and our application of the concepts in ways that are hard to define. Not thinking it's necessary or relevant in 2016 is an excellent example of how our privilege blinds us AND binds us to cultural and societal patriarchy. 

Now let's talk a bit about feminism and India. 

More feminists and all around top peeps
All the Indian women I know personally are ridiculously clever, focussed and accomplished. In fact, if I had to stereotype Indian born Australian women I'd probably say they were ridiculously clever, focussed and accomplished. 

And having now gone to India - I'd say as a stereotype - I'm not too off base.  The difference of course lies with the word 'opportunity'.  

Despite our ingrained 'developed world' mistrust around the concept of arranged marriages, a system of choosing a life partner which seems both eminently sensible and hopelessly outdated all at the same time, many women in India have both the opportunity and the desire to get an education.  They obtain degrees, get good jobs, have ambition. Yes, many of them are doing most of the child rearing and domestic chores as well but that isn't that far removed from our reality either. 

Separate to these women, are hundreds of thousands of women, maybe more, that lack the opportunities. Born into poverty, they marry into poverty, they birth into poverty and the cycle continues. Children are not able to stay at school, when by working they can be assisting to feed and house the family. 

Poverty is the building which often houses hopelessness, despair, violence and ill health. But in the communities in which World Vision is partnering with the families, there are a number of men and women effecting change that are are strongly, undeniably, unexpectedly - feminists. 

Yes. Feminists.

These men and women spend years building up relationships in their local communities so that they can understand how they can make life better for the children. And that is nearly always, without exception, through the empowerment of women. 

They assist them to set up self help groups, gain qualifications, set up small business, send their kids to school, support higher education, run rehab centres, facilitate financial growth, improve health and hygiene, teach positive parenting and a myriad of other initiatives driven by the ambition of the communities to structure a better future for their children.

These men and women of World Vision aren't patronising, they do not pity. They are completely committed to these communities in ways that are both grounding and inspiring.  They know people's names, they keep confidences, they offer solutions, they research. They are there more often than not 6-7 days a week providing a foundation on which women can proactively empower themselves, their children and their wider communities.

They advocate on behalf of the women and work tirelessly alongside them but always with the idea that one day, their role in the community will become defunct. 

It is a commitment to achieving equal political, economic, personal, and social rights for women in a way that is tangible, practical and constant. It is feminism in action, not reaction. 

Compassion and kindness does change the world. And I am incredibly thankful that I had the opportunity to witness it in action.  

Thanks again to all the World Vision India staff that I met and apologies for putting you, as well as your incredible work, in the spotlight. I know that's not why you do it. 

Last week I was in the field with World Vision Australia as a guest of World Vision India.
I am sharing stories about the humans I met.
This is done with their full permission.

If you want to see more of what goes on when I'm not writing this blog
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And sign up HERE to become a Franklophile and get the newsletter.

22 July 2016

A toilet is not just a toilet

I know I have a potty mouth, that I laugh at toilet humour and am mad keen on giving a shit, but today was the first time I have ever teared up when somebody talked about toilets.

A young girl in her mid teens stood alongside her mother and spoke about how the toilet she was standing beside had changed her life.

Toilet number 2 in the slums of Saidapet.

Let us go back slightly in time to Tuesday. I stood in a small rural village admiring the stone bathroom that had been installed this last year.  It was one of 15 in the village and was part of a behavioural shift in a village that had practiced open defecation.

This is when one toilets in the fields surrounding one’s village. It’s clearly unhygienic but more pressingly, it’s unsafe. Women tend to have to wait until night to go to the fields to do their business and never on their own. Children can not go on their own, ever. It’s undignified, it encourages disease and it can result in violence against women.

In this village, the toilets were prized. Two septic style tanks were in the ground under each toilet, and after one year they could be emptied and used as manure in the fields. So not only practical, but super practical. 

I was there. I could SEE the difference it was making. I heard them talk about feeling safer and the impact on their health already showing after a few short months but somehow, at one level and completely without merit, hindsight shows me that my brain was processing it alongside ‘bush wees/poos’. Not preferred, but still it was outdoors.

Fast forward back to today when I’m standing in the slums of Saidapet. In a city. The slums were flooded last year. And by flooded, I mean totally underwater. The water rose to above roof height. And then it went down again, and while about 110 families in this particular section were rehoused, there are still a lot of families living in the area.

This area too was a place of open defecation. People would have to go towards the river in the dark, down the embankment. Through the mud, the refuse, the scorpions and the snakes to go to the toilet. Women and children could not go alone. There was no hope of toileting during the day because the riverbank is in plain sight of anybody going by.

About 8 months ago, the World Vision team working with the 61 sponsored children in this local community helped the residents install six bio-toilets. The toilets are about the size of phone booths and are enclosed by barbed wire. They sit above the river bank and operate like long drops, but full of microbes that dispose of fecal matter. The toilet compound is locked and each of the six toilets are allocated to only ten families per toilet. They have a roster for cleaning it and a bore pump to access water to clean clothes and keep the toilets clean, eliminating any need to go down to the river. 

The principles here in this urban slum are exactly the same as the rural village. Perhaps some part of me identified with the urban setting more or perhaps, it was this quietly spoken girl speaking so movingly about regaining her dignity and her feeling of safety. About how excited and proud she was to be part of the team that looked after the toilets. About how these six toilets had changed her life.  And all of a sudden I got it.

I really got it.

Toilets are not just about going to the toilet.

They are about good health. They are about safety. They are about opportunity. They are about nurturing. They are about education. They are about hope. They are about dignity. They are about respect.

A couple of other women spoke at their relief of being able to protect their daughters better now they had access to the toilets, being able to help them more practically during their monthly cycles and about being able, for the first time in their lives, to go to the toilet with dignity.

They then broke out into applause to thank us for the toilets. It was incredibly humbling to be representing the people they were truly applauding – the people around the world who sponsor World Vision projects such as these.

So thank you from them. Thank you for giving a shit.

This week I am in the field with World Vision Australia as a guest of World Vision India.
I am sharing stories about the humans I meet.
This is done with their full permission.

If you want to see more of what goes on when I'm not writing this blog
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And sign up HERE to become a Franklophile and get the newsletter.

20 July 2016

From Pudukattai to Putney

My daughter attends a child care centre which is generally regarded to be 'the bomb'.  Enthusiastic teachers, colourfully painted, big emphasis on play and it's contribution to learning, nutrition garden so they can learn how to grow vegetables and then see them used in food, singing, dancing and yoga. 

It's everything a Putney parent could wish for.

And then some. It's only a few hundred metres down the road.

Don't get me wrong - like all Australian's we pay for child care. Handsomely.  And in Sydney, we pay even more.

And it sometimes feels from my point of view we pay to have sand replaced on a daily basis if the amount that comes home in my daughter's shoes and pockets is anything to go by. 

But we are prepared to pay for quality care, positive and cheery carers and an environment that nurtures a love of learning. 

And then, quite surreally, I find myself standing in a small village comprised of dirt tracks, stray goats and makeshift housing, where about 80 kids have access to exactly the same thing.

Around 9,000 kilometres NW of Putney. In a village not far from Pudukottai there is -

A cement building colourfully painted inside and out (tick)

Enthusiastic and committed teachers (tick)

Big emphasis on play (tick)

Nutrition garden (tick)

Carefully prepped meals to make sure their brains and bodies are nourished (tick)

Yoga sessions (tick)

Education (tick)

Focus on hygiene (tick)

I think David Bowie can rest. Not only do the Russians love their children (confirmed by me in 1992) but it turns out that Indians do too. 

This is what sponsorship money does. 

See this?

Do I need to bore you or have you guessed what it is? (I know - totes hilaire right?)

That's right. It's the innocuous pipe transforming the future in a way that Marty McFly could never.

Pushing 240 feet (around 80 metres) into the ground, this bore is pumping CLEAN water onto the hands of small people, down their throats and onto their nutrition garden.

It's the trifecta of happiness.  

This modest government school has been transformed by a dedicated headmaster who recognised that education doesn't happen in isolation.  He might have had the building, but he needed to create an environment that allowed children's bodies and brains to flourish and for that he went and collaborated with World Vision. 

There are about 10 children sponsored as part of the World Vision program in this village. That monthly contribution is transforming the lives of over 80 school children directly and many hundreds indirectly.  World Vision helped the headmaster install the bore, furnish the school, set up the plumbing and set up the gardens with seeds and what not. 

And "just" like that, the kitchen garden which my daughter adores is present in the lives of 80 odd children in a village that had no access to safe water. 

We spent some time chatting to the children in the school. I met five little boys who made me smile.  Two wanted to be police officers, one a senior government official, one a mechanical engineer and one a doctor.  One of the lads had a hole in his heart and was waiting for surgery, a surgery that would not have been possible without the school because he wouldn't have been strong enough to undergo it. 

They loved school.

They loved weekends best. 

Those little boys could have been any of my daughters' friends. Funny little chaps with big ambitions, heart melting smiles and and dusty knees. Irrepressible.


This week I am in the field with World Vision Australia 
as a guest of World Vision India.
I am sharing stories about the humans I meet.
This is done with their full permission.

If you want to see more of what goes on when I'm not writing this blog
follow me on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram

And sign up HERE to become a Franklophile and get the newsletter.