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Hampered by the complexities of working in a foreign country, an unknown language and an often alien culture, I found weaving together my picture of the work of the Veerni Project was similar to the process of creating the intricate quilted wall hangings made by the women of Rajasthan – a process in which the final design appears only slowly. My first priority was to develop a thorough understanding of the NGO I am working with, its strengths, weaknesses, needs and capacity.
Veerni works with six rural villages in the Jodhpur region of Rajasthan, India. The team helps to provide health and nutritional care, economic empowerment and education to the women and adolescent girls, and raising awareness of key issues such as malnutrition or domestic violence in the whole community. They run sewing courses to provide women with a means to generate their own income, provide literacy centres for girls who will other wise not attend school, and also fund a hostel in Jodhpur, where 85 village girls are able to benefit from improved health, nutrition and most importantly, a full time education.
Fifteen weeks seemed like ample time from my home in London, time that has now become compressed as I have realised the complexities of development work, even within my own small role. What has gradually emerged from the patches of quilt is a possible synergy between Veerni’s groundbreaking work on nutritional supplements, designed and patented by the nutritional team, and their less developed programme on skills training for income generation. An in-depth survey of the villages, their current nutritional habits and awareness and receptiveness to the idea of new income strategies, could assess the potential to initiate a women’s cooperative to produce the Veerni nutritional supplements. Ideally, this would provide employment and income to the women involved as well as easily available low-cost supplements to local families. This synergy of increasing women’s ability to nourish themselves and their families while developing their self-respect and status through income generation appeals to me. However, it is only by asking the women themselves that I can discover if such a project is viable in the hard grind for survival that characterises their day-to-day lives.
These women are the human capital that is so often wasted in an area that has some of India’s lowest female literacy rates, female to male sex ratios and health indicators. And yet behind the gloomy statistics there lies a wealth of potential. Conducting interviews of some of the girls attending the Veerni hostel I met Shoba Choudhary, a seventeen-year-old from Rajwa village, who has been at the hostel for one year. Rajwa suffers from all the blights on women that plague one of India’s most underdeveloped states: the female literacy rate is 3.69% and the village population is 580 women to 611 men, clearly showing the number of ‘missing women’. Yet despite being married at eight, and now under pressure from her fellow villagers to give up her education and return to her family, Shoba displayed a quiet but impressive confidence and self-knowledge. ‘Education is a girl’s true friend’ she said, and talked of her ambition to attend college, pass the tough civil service exams and work for the government of Rajasthan. Only time will tell if Shoba can overcome the pressure from her village and achieve her ambitions, but her intelligence and maturity are a sign of the immense human capital Veerni is working to cultivate.
Back in Rajwa, as I observed the field staff and the women and children they worked with, the most powerful images were sensory: the vivid pink of the women’s head veils, the Indian sun baking the almost barren earth and dullness of malnutrition in some of the children’s coal-lined eyes. I understood nothing of the Mawari spoken, but what I could appreciate was the respect felt for the Veerni field staff. The men listened when they spoke and the women slowly pulled back their veils in their presence. This respect, and its fruits in terms of the true community engagement and trust it indicated, was a better introduction to the work of Veerni than any annual report or flashy website. It was also a crash course in the patience required for community development; a patience that does not come naturally to most Westerners, perhaps especially those who want to ‘make a difference.’ I may have emerged from the first phase of the internship process, but the real challenge, to develop a little of that patience, dedication and humility, is only just beginning.