Evaleen Jones, MD is the founder of Child Family Health International (CFHI) and Clinical Faculty at the Stanford University School of Medicine. Today, on International Women’s Day we feature an experience from her recent visit to CFHI partner sites in India, and a story from a woman she met while there. Her story carries the message of community empowerment that CFHI embodies.
January 31. Today we visited Alwar, a village three hours from Delhi via a bumpy car ride. CFHI students spend several days at the Sulabh International Social Service Organization, one of CFHI’s local partner organizations. Sulabh means ‘Easy’ in Hindi. We stop in front of a small nondescript cement building, beneath a sign that reads ‘Nai Disha’ (New Direction). Usha Chaumar is the president of Sulabh and a nicely dressed woman, no more than five feet tall. She greets us warmly and her eyes shine brightly. Her royal blue sari accents her brown skin. We will spend the next hour touring the site and meeting a community of women whose lives dramatically changed course in less than 10 years… the truth and simplicity of her personal story is mindboggling.
(Translated from Hindi)
“I was married when I was ten years old. I spent the first ten years carrying human waste on my head- collecting it from homes and dumping it far away from the city streets. No one would come near us- we were compensated for our work by families leaving out leftover scraps of food and sometimes a few rupees were thrown our way. In 2003, when I was 21, a strange man [Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak] came to our village and asked a group of us if we ‘wanted to change our lives’. At first I thought he was making fun of me and I hid behind my veil. But he was persistent and obtained my trust and invited several women like me to go with him to Delhi. My mother-in-law was skeptical and said “Don’t believe him, nobody came in my 65 years of life to change me- so this is not possible”. But my husband supported me. We were all so curious and excited- we might never have the chance to drive in a car or visit Delhi ever again. He convinced 12 of us to join him for lunch in a public area, and then to eat dinner at a Five Star hotel. Never in our lives had we ever been to a public place, not even the local market or a temple! Later we found out that he was from the Brahman [caste]- we could not believe someone like him would be kind to us.
When I went home I wasn’t sure that I could believe that his promise might be true. But that day, while I was gone, my 2 year old son had been attacked by a large pig in the slum where I lived and it convinced me I needed to take this chance to change my life. Over the next five years this program has taught all of us about clean water, personal hygiene and how to earn money by making bread and pasta – we make it all by hand to package and sell wholesale. Since 2003, over 60 women have come to our program [at Sulabh]and learned important skills of embroidery, sewing, beauty care. Now we have a way to live and support ourselves without scavenging human waste. My daughter is now 8 years old and she has never seen the life I used to live before Sulabh.”
Each woman who has come to Sulabh relates an incredible journey. Each CFHI student in the Public Health and Community Medicine Program in Delhi are given opportunities to interact and learn more about Sulabh and how it is run, and personally experience how Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak’s dream, “To Make India Scavenger Free” can change the lives of an entire community. Even though scavenging human waste became illegal in India in the late 1970’s and early 80’s it still exists in rural areas to this day. As a result of this collaboration, more than 60 women have participated in vocational training and live an entirely new way of life in the town of Alwar. A life that promises ‘ripples of opportunity and hope’ for these women’s children and their children’s children. What I have seen here today is not just a form of economic emancipation, but a true form of social emancipation, and women’s empowerment.
-Evaleen Jones, MD