The two young, sari-clad women, one in blue and one in orange, stand in the thatched-roof meeting hall, take hold of the microphone and join their voices.
“We don’t need any fancy materials,” they croon by heart. “What we need is just some food to live. We don’t ask for a refrigerator, a TV or a car. We just need some small capital to start a business.”
The audience of women in the village of Alamarai Kuppam applaud with enthusiasm. The few men, seated or hovering around the edges, are more circumspect, but they, too, nod approvingly.
Call it women’s lib, post-tsunami-India style.
The outpouring of financial support that followed the 2004 tsunami has accelerated efforts to improve the lives of rural women — an initiative that goes well beyond helping families recover from the tsunami.
“This disaster has given us a space to create gender equality,” says Attapan, the director of Rural Organization for Society Education (ROSE). ROSE is among the Indian nonprofits supported by the American Jewish World Service (AJWS), which focuses on international development based on the Jewish value of tikkun olam, or repairing the world.
Before, says Attapan, many fishing villages functioned almost as closed societies, distrustful of outsiders, with women locked into traditional, subservient roles. It’s still a country of arranged marriages, and, in places, instances of girl infanticide and widow burning.
But in this region, when the tidal wave took everything, these villagers had to look outside for help. The women, it turned out, were eager for expanded roles. And many men quickly realized that not only could they benefit from the outsiders, who brought resources and new ideas, but also from the resourcefulness of their own spouses, daughters and mothers.
Attapan’s organization has worked with women from fishing villages to help them develop business skills, such as tailoring and growing and selling herbs.
The two singing women are performing the homemade anthem of an informal women’s “congress” from 14 villages that has gathered in Alamarai Kuppam under the auspices of the Ghandian Unit for Integrated Development (GUIDE). GUIDE is trying to make women politically powerful and to break down traditional Hindu class divisions.
The caste system, although officially abolished in 1949, remains a potent and denigrating social force. The mixture of castes among the women gathered in Alamarai Kuppam is striking: It includes Dalit participants, the group once known as untouchables; they still suffer pervasive discrimination.
At the meeting, women rise group by group to proclaim their successes.
“We stopped the men from making alcohol in our village,” one women says.
Another exclaims: “We made demands for tsunami relief and got it.”
“We got schools to reduce their fees,” a third says.
This activism is true and courageous feminism, says R. Vasantha, development consultant for GUIDE. “In traditional society, if a woman speaks out about a problem, especially a problem with an abusive husband, she is an immoral woman. These women will now go to a police station and file a case.”
A delegation of women from four villages recently demanded that a man reserve some property and inheritance for a second wife he had taken, as well as for the woman’s baby. And in Alamarai Kuppam, women and GUIDE workers went to the police to halt an arranged marriage between an unwilling 13-year-old and an older man who wanted a second wife.
The 13-year-old’s parents had made the deal for money. Villagers later raised money to help the family.
And, when it comes to the business theme of the homemade anthem, these women aren’t waiting for opportunity to come looking for them. They’ve opened fish stalls in nearby towns to sell the village catch. And they’re going to start an ice factory to keep their fish fresh and to sell ice to others.
Working with women, particularly educating them, is probably the “best single investment” that can be made in international development, said Michael Cohen, director of the New School for Social Research’s graduate program in international affairs in New York. “It helps on the income side and reduces the family size.”
Both elements, he added, are key to reducing rural poverty.