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The Universal Opportunity of Service



When I was in graduate school, studying for my masters in social work, I worked at a residential treatment home for women who had been convicted of felony crimes- usually resulting from trying to feed a drug addiction.  The reason why these women were living in this program instead of jail was their children.  Many of the women were single parents without much support or help from family for raising their children.  If the women had gone to jail, the children would have likely been placed in foster care or shifted around various family members.  This program was in place to keep the mothers and their children together, while working toward the healing and rehabilitation of the women.  It was an alternative to incarceration that was perhaps more challenging than actually being in jail.

Whereas many of the women’s jail terms would have been for 6-8 months, this residential treatment program took about two years to complete.  Women started off in the house living with a lot of structure and restrictions and not much freedom at all.  As they progressed through the program, they were encouraged to get vocational training and maintain jobs.  Before this step, each participant spent a month or two doing volunteer work with a community organization- learning to be responsible, to complete assigned tasks, and to keep a schedule, etc.  While this experience was certainly beneficial to their next steps of seeking and keeping full-time employment, I witnessed incredibly powerful personal transformations in the women as they completed their volunteer work.

The act of giving and contributing to others in need was a new behavior for most of the women.  Often, these women were treated by society as resource deficient- lacking in money, life-skills, health, etc.  They were usually the ones receiving “help”, whether from social services, teachers, or family.  I think that they had come to believe that they did not have anything to contribute, that they were fundamentally lacking.  At the end of their volunteer day, as I picked up individual women from their community organizations, the improvement in their mood was the first thing that I noticed.  For the most part, the women positively glowed from the good feelings that they experienced from giving and helping.

In the long term, I believe that these community service experiences were absolutely empowering for the women.  Participating in community service help the women related to others from an entirely new self image, one of value- not just one of deficiency.  How amazingly beautiful that everyone in this world can experience their worth through service to others!


Joy Mischley

Reflections: SevaYatra-Srijan Urban Microfinance Field Trip - Ruchi Khemka


SevaYatra organized a field-trip for a select group of 10 people attending the Srijan conference in Mumbai.  This trip preceded the two day Conference and was attended by a diverse group of individuals from across different sectors.  While Srijan would be a rich classroom of learning where stalwarts of MicroFinance and the champions of the future share their experiences and vision for the next decade, the whole idea of the field-trip was to really expose people to the behind-the-scenes operations of a working urban MFi and to be able to meet and interact with the beneficiaries thereof. 


So on the day of the field-trip, 6th October, I reached Sanmitra Trust (the nodal agency to SBI MF), at about noon.  I had a chance to interact in detail with Prabha Desai- founder of Sanmitra Trust, met with a few of her field-staff - usually women from nearby communities, and with some beneficiaries of this micro-credit.  It was a charged environment, with almost every woman there trying to be the first one to share their story of struggle to micro-credit with me.  My ears filled with the warmth of the words like ‘didi suno’ and ‘didi, aapko pata hai’ throughout!  It is this first moment when you realize that these are no different women (in terms of aspiration) than a lot of other entrepreneurial women I’ve met in life!


Soon, around 2pm, our participants started coming in. I thought the arrangements were fairly simple with people expected to sit on the chairs with all these women on the carpet below, when I was surprised when every participant was greeted with a rose by these women.  So we started with basic introductions by SevaYatra and soon asked everyone to introduce themselves, on who they were and why they were here today.  Then Prabha Desai gave an overview of her work at Sanmitra Trust, on how she started many years ago primarily to support these women with basic healthcare and then taught them the importance of saving, until today when they’re being lent microcredit by SBI.  It was interesting to learn that a lot of Banks she approached initially were actually hesitant to open bank-accounts for women who are of have been either sex workers or bar girls!  After Prabha’s insightful introduction, we moved on to introduce all the women seated with us – some field-staff while others beneficiaries of micro-credit.  Thereon, some women got together and enacted a skit they usually use to recruit more women from the community to form Self Help Groups.  It was interesting, particularly given that they enact real life scenarios to women who may be currently going through or may have gone through the situation at some point in their life.   What followed after this was an inquisitive round of questions to Prabha, the field-staff, these other women present there and the staff at Sanmitra Trust who manage these SHGs and the communities. 


At about 4pm, we decided to take the people onto a field-trip to meet with a group of women who have newly formed a SHG, have been saving for the past 3-4 months and awaiting funding from SBI.  We were led by Deepak, a coordinator at Sanmitra.  We walked down, walked across the street and entered the narrow lanes of Malwani village slums to finally reach one of their houses.  There were 6-7 women, mostly mid-aged, with a veil on their head, starring at us with eyes full of questions and hoping to not get photographed!  We entered that small 12X8 room, which was a house to 5 members of a family.  We started with introductions of these women, mostly sex workers and introduced ourselves to them as well – all conversations being in Hindi.  Soon the group leader, Tasneem, started telling us their story, how they came together, formed the SHG, started the bank account, and are now awaiting a loan.  What followed was another round of extremely inquisitive questions from our participants and very candid and honest answers from these women.


What strikes you the most, and this is more my experience than the group at large, is the fact that how tightly-knit these women are within these communities.  The amount of trust they place within the field-staff and Sanmitra Trust.  The kind of belief they have that they will get the micro-credit one day, soon.  And to beat it all, the enterprising spirit to start either a potato-onion stall or a ‘vada-pav’ stall in the neighbourhood and be able to fight poverty due to that.   But what really leaves you thinking and pondering over is the state and the quality of the lives of these women.  With most of them suffering with either STD’s (Sexually Transmitted Diseases) or AIDS - thereby being stigmatized by the society as the ‘wrong women’, dealing with domestic violence, suffering from the torture of their husband’s having multiple wives / lovers, having atleast 2-3 children each and at times not being able to afford education for them, the exorbitant rents of these small rooms they live in, and the astronomical interest rates they pay to some money lenders who they’ve borrowed from for either health related issues or festivals! 


When we left that place, there was a pin-drop silence as all of us experienced and went through some never-been-there, never-experienced-that type of similar emotions.  One question that you were left haunting with is, that even if these women were giving micro-credit, what fraction of their problems would it be able to solve?  I’m not taking away from or questioning the commendable work that most MFi’s do in this space, who are surely helping alleviate poverty levels of these communities.  However, it’s a mind-opener to interact with these women and to be able to see them grappling in this viscous circle of life!


Once we got back to the Sanmitra Trust office, we all shared our instant first thoughts on the field-visit.  It was indeed an experience of a life-time for most who went there.  We were then joined by our last speaker, Arunkumar Padmanabhan, who runs his own MFi in Mumbai and currently reaches out to approximately 5000 women through his 5 centres.  Arun spoke of his challenges of being an urban MFi, his journey so far and his aspirations forward.  He was showered with a barrage of questions on a lot of “how’s” and “what’s” of the business.  Our trip ended at 6pm, with the staff at Sanmitra singing us a hearty goodluck and a good-bye song. 


My personal reaction to the whole experience:  there’s a far wider spectrum to things than they appear.  What may appear to be a rather simple solution to poverty alleviation, is actually much more empowering to these women and communities than the microcredit alone.  What keeps these women going, is actually the support they receive from their peers and other community members.  It’s the trust that an NGO like Sanmitra Trust forms with these women, that makes them so sure about their future!  And lastly, the ‘all will be well’ attitude, the entrepreneurial spirit and the proud feeling that the smallest achievement can give them, makes you understand the depth and the success of the entire micro-credit business and system! 


Ruchi Khemka

How to Travel....


I credit my study abroad semester, during college, with teaching me how to travel… five months in Belize, Central America on a program focused on ecology and culture.  The program included academic components and field-based learning.  And, we were a group of 19.  It was my first significant experience outside of the United States and it was comforting to be part of a group, at first.  However, after the initial weeks, it was apparent that four more months of staying solely on the “group agenda” was likely to limit that scope of the learning and interaction.  While the program was well designed, including independent research components and free time- it was up to me to discover how to make the best use of this.

Many of the best experiences came from interacting with people during the less structured program times.  During these times, I had a more active stance- rather than being in the role of a more passive “recipient” of a program plan.  Learning something or experiencing something required me to reach out, strike up conversations, ask questions, get involved…

I was recently on a group tour of a NGO in India- an activity that they conduct regularly so that people can learn about their work and learn about an aspect of life for people that the tourists may not interact with in such a free way as a traveler on their own.  It was a great tour and, as we were taken into a classroom of children, became even better as we lead them in a game.  Our exchange became more mutual, was something that we were experiencing together, and had the basis for crossing the bridge of “us” and “them” that had subtly permeated the tour.

This is a very, very small example of the reason that I think that hands-on, interactive components (hopefully well-designed service projects!) are an important piece of tours and travel that bring visitors into contact with NGOs.  The simple game, in which we all played, helped everyone- both tourists and travelers- become agents in the experience.

Though I’m sure that I’ll write a number of future blog postings about the ethics and dynamics of voluntourism, at least in this posting, I’d like to acknowledge the significance of including active engagement for all involved when building a NGO-based tour program.  We design programs based on NGO needs, in partnership with staff that know that client population well- having the best intentions to plan a mutually beneficially voluntourism interaction; one the benefits the NGO and also the travelers.  Yet, the critical piece is that the NGO population/clients should experience and feel this mutuality in a real way, during the actual interactions.  The mutual engagement isn’t just something for the NGO staff and tour staff to create for themselves during the planning process- when the rubber meets the road, it is about the experience and impression that NGO clients actually feel that needs to count most.    


Joy Mischley