‘Now we stand on our own feet’

Vice-President of the Methodist Conference, Dr Jill Barber, meets women supported by All We Can’s partner in India

Sometimes the most powerful voice is not the one bellowing with self-importance but is the one that speaks quietly through actions. Rita Devi is not someone who shouts. She is small in stature, a slip of a woman with a mischievous glint in her eye. She is one of a number of women who are quietly transforming the very traditional community in which they live, for the better. Just before Christmas, Jill Barber, the Vice-President of the Methodist Conference, ,met Rita to find out more about her life and what makes such a small, quiet woman a force for change in her community in Jharkhand, India.

In Jharkhand, one of India’s poorest states, despite some progress over recent years, many women like Rita still face poverty, discrimination and violence simply because they are female. Jill went to India to learn more about All We Can’s work through visiting its local partner the Srijan Foundation. All We Can, the Methodist relief and development partner, works with organisations like the Srijan Foundation that are improving the quality of life for people living in some of the world’s poorest communities. The Srijan Foundation work with marginalised women like Rita to help them find their voice, discover new ways to earn an income, and in turn inspire and empower other women in their villages.

Jill spent time with the women of Rita’s Self-Help Group (SHG). This group was formed with the help of the Srijan Foundation in response to some of the needs of the women in Rita’s village Sugia. Rita explained to Jill that she was typical of many women in the village. She used to be afraid to go out of her home or even speak in public: “Previously I would not go out of the house. People would abuse me or talk about me. I would only do housework, we didn’t save any money”. When spending time with the SHG, Jill learned that this small group of around fifteen women were certainly not afraid to speak anymore, so she wanted to find out what had brought about the change.

Rita, a mother of three, told Jill that she had been hesitant about joining an SHG at first, as in her village it was not considered acceptable for women to speak out or be visible in the community. The Srijan Foundation had worked with both men and women in Sugia to explain that by working together, and by helping women understand their rights and earn an income, everyone would benefit. The group started a goat-rearing project which began to provide families with an additional source of income. As time passed, many women, including Rita, started to lose the fear they had of letting their opinions be heard, because the community could see that the group were getting things done that helped everyone.

Rita gained the confidence and skills to start earning an income through applying for a job as a nursery school teacher, and through being part of the goat rearing project. She also started to give back through outreach work. She has a passion for helping women who are pregnant, or bringing up small babies, to access services such as maternal health care and infant vaccinations. She now reaches out through counselling women who are vulnerable, offering advice and a listening ear. Other women in Rita’s SHG are running for local election and campaigning for improved sanitation. The group are quickly becoming a force to be reckoned with!

Before leaving Rita’s home Jill spoke about what she had seen and heard in Sugia. She said, “What a day! It was packed full of sounds, sensations and new things to look at. One of the overwhelming things for me is how limited women’s lives are here, though clearly All We Can’s project has opened things up. Rita is a very inspirational woman, she shows that all of us, no matter what our circumstances are, can find our voice and stand up for change. It takes courage to speak out and to challenge things.”

The kind of bravery Jill had recognised in Rita was echoed in her response to one of Jill’s parting questions. When asked what the biggest change had been in her life as a result of the Srijan Foundation’s work, Rita brushed her hair out of her face, clasped her hands together and looked Jill straight in the eye as she said simply, “I have a voice. I am no longer scared. Now we stand on our own feet.”

Find out more about Jill’s time in India and download or order free church resources to support All We Can’s Inspirational Women Appeal this Lent at www.allwecan.org.uk/InspiredIndia

[Image caption] Jill Barber sits with Rita Devi discussing life in Jharkhand. © All We Can/Laura Cook