Posted by IDEX
The following was written by Suzanne York, blogger at Taming the Tiger and writer with the Institute for Population Studies/HowMany.org.
Recently I had the privilege of meeting with Dr. Prakash Tyagi, a medical doctor and director of Gramin Vikas Vigyan Samiti (GRAVIS), a rural empowerment organization based in the state of Rajasthan, India. Dr. Tyagi was visiting the San Francisco Bay Area, courtesy of the International Development Exchange (IDEX).
The mission of GRAVIS, grounded in Gandhian philosophy, is to promote sustainable rural development via capacity building, community and women’s empowerment, social justice, and protecting the environment. Previously, I wrote on how the organization empowers rural communities by employing traditional knowledge of taankas, a water storage system.
GRAVIS works in the Thar Desert in western Rajasthan. It is the world’s most densely populated desert ecosystem, with 23 million people. Life is tough, with unpredictable rainfall, environmental degradation, climatic extremes, resource scarcity, few health clinics, and oppressive social standards for women. GRAVIS incorporates a holistic approach, focusing on water security, food security, health, and education, and reaches approximately 1 million people.
Equal Voice/Equal Rights
Dr. Tyagi talked about how GRAVIS works to overcome the difficulties facing women in the Thar Desert by making them equal partners. They are guided by the idea of “sitting on one carpet”, meaning equal voice/equal rights for men and women. Much of this work is done through Self-Help Groups, which aid women in life skills and economic self-reliance. Projects include support for seed banks, micro-credit lending, and nutrition.
Overall, GRAVIS takes a life-cycle approach to meeting the needs of girls and mothers, and promotes leadership development, health education, maternal health, and girls education. Currently, the organization has set up 90 primary schools to help increase girl enrollment.
Overcoming Cultural Obstacles
We then discussed family planning, a sensitive issue in rural areas. GRAVIS has put much effort toward prevention, capacity building, and the training of village health workers. Though issues such as the “mother-in-law” effect (named for the influential family member with a preference for grandsons) are still an obstacle, Dr. Tyagi said they were slowly changing deep-rooted beliefs, especially by involving men in family planning, and improving literacy. Village health workers also have the trust of their respective communities, which enables them to overcome some of the village skepticism regarding modern medicine and health practices.
Another cultural barrier to overcome is that of child marriage, a still-too-common practice in Rajasthan, and one rooted in social poverty. Official government figures show the percentage of girls getting married before the age of eighteen is 68% in Rajasthan. GRAVIS has been able to reduce rates of child marriage by empowering women, educating girls, and improving economic opportunities.
Tackling Environmental Concerns
Lastly, our discussion touched upon overcoming desertification, overgrazing, erosion, and other environmental problems. GRAVIS works with communities through locally-based organizations to create community forests and pastures. The forests – called orans – are considered sacred, dedicated to a local god or goddess and protected by ancient laws in each community. Traditionally, orans allowed for equal access of all people to resources. GRAVIS is working with communities to protect more orans in the Thar Desert region.
The short time I spent with Dr. Tyagi gave me hope and inspiration that by taking a holistic, traditional, and empowerment-based approach to the critical issues facing not only Rajasthan, but also much of the world, we can create positive change.
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