By Crystal Haling
Bangalore is unbelievable. People, people, people. Construction everywhere and perhaps destruction too. Everything is half torn down, or half built - hard to tell which. Cars, buses, rickshaws, cows and motorbikes. This place screams capitalistic progress. I've never imagined traffic like this. Day and night, all senses assaulted while walking in damp muggy air, definitely very Bladerunner. Modern meets ancient masala.
But early morning we board the bus for the Kolar District which is about 3 hours and 75 years away from Bangalore. I am excited to meet the women of Grameena Mahila Okkuta (or GMO as they call themselves). This women's self-help organization, has 8,500 members of more than 500 rural self-help groups in 240 villages in this extremely poor region of India. We are greeted at noon by a gorgeous group of women who have waited excitedly for our arrival since early morning.
It is impossible for a black woman visiting India not to notice skin color. Most of these women look like they could be relatives of mine. Dark, beautiful skin--impossible to tell their ages.
GMO's membership is 83% Dalits (historically referred to as untouchables) and other minorities. Indian TV, street signs and ads have 0% images of these women.
This is not an aid organization; it’s a rights based advocacy group. They are fighting for their rights in their marriages, in their villages, in this country where progress often means ignoring communities where communal land ownership and ancient farming practices aren't just quaint ideals, but mean the difference between starvation and sustenance
One woman told us of their lives before joining GMO "We were ruled by men. We were totally oppressed." But not anymore. What they have achieved: more than 200 women now own land in their own names; they have become members of their local villages' school, leadership and sanitation committees; 3 of the women we met are local elected officials. These women are not literate. Married off sometime after age 12 or 13.
As these women stood and shared their stories, this villages' first elected woman council member said, "I am illiterate but I perform well because I don't take bribes. Thanks to GMO we have no fear to talk to anyone."
What impresses me most, aside from their courage, is their deep analysis of why their villages are poor. Their primary issues are water and land rights, which they see as linked to women's rights and human rights. Women as keepers of ancient culture and participants in defining progress.
Crystal Haling is a supporter of the Global Fund for Women who was part of the pilot donor trip to south India.