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What do Christmas in the UK and everyday life in India have in common? More than you’d expect.
This time last year, just as the Christmas lights went up and the temperature dropped in the UK, I was visiting All We Can’s partner READ in India (and glad to have any excuse to put the Christmas shopping off a bit longer). To my surprise, in Odisha, one of the poorest states in India, I also found homes adorned with bright lights, scented candles burning, celebrations in the streets and a frenzy of traffic and people reminiscent of my local shopping centre on Christmas Eve. Oh, and gold, lots of it!
I soon realised, though, that all that glitters is not gold. All We Can has a vision of every person’s God-given potential being fulfilled. I learned that for women in India, the beautifully wrapped saris and glinting bangles often mask the ways in which their potential is being stifled – thanks to the complexities of the caste system and a tangle of oppressive gender and poverty-induced limitations.
That’s where READ steps in. READ sees the hidden gold in people, and through carefully designed training and support, they help it to surface. READ’s work is focused on tribal communities across Odisha, where its experienced staff know the names and the needs, the problems and the potential, of some of the most marginalised people in the region. Working through Women’s Self-Help Groups in 50 villages, READ is supporting women to gain more control over their lives, as they learn how to access loans, start enterprises and use their legal rights to speak up for themselves and their communities.
READ sees worth in people that others would have written off. Its work has made community entrepreneurs out of the uneducated and has empowered some of the country’s poorest people to influence government policy. I had the privilege of seeing this first-hand when I met Sumenti, who once struggled to survive but is now the Secretary of her Self Help Group, the proud owner of a brick-making business, and an elected local government representative. Sumenti explained: “READ first came here six years ago. I was living in a very difficult situation. READ formed a Self-Help Group and encouraged us to save. After listening to the READ staff, we started organising our group and started saving through farming and brick making activities. They gave us support for the business.”
READ’s rights and advocacy training uncovered the voice and potential within Sumenti that society had stifled. “I used to be seen and not heard. I was ‘silent Sumenti’ before”, she reflected. Silent no more, in 2013 Sumenti was elected as a local government representative, representing her community’s views on local issues and lobbying for life-enhancing policies to be introduced to benefit her village. “The READ workers motivated me and said I should be a leader,” she explained. “Eventually I agreed with them. Slowly I could meet with different people – government and other leaders. I learnt so many things, what and how to speak. I started speaking with big people, like government officers and village leaders. The people appreciate my work and like me, so when the election came they requested that I stand for local assembly. I now represent three villages”.
So, what do Sumenti’s story and Christmas have in common? Hope, joy, love and peace. I’m reminded though, that the changes Sumenti has experienced are not seasonal, but sustainable. Even though our Christmas decorations eventually have to come down READ’s work continues. READ began supporting people in Sumenti’s village eight years ago, they’re in it for the long haul. The gold- the good- of READ’s work will last long beyond the season of good will.
Sumenti Himala, Secretary of the Mohiladala Self-Help Group
This Christmas, support READ to help more women to fulfil their God given potential.
Just £16 could provide young fish so that two women’s Self-Help Groups can set up fish farms. The income the women earn from selling the fish enables them to provide for their families and gain more control over their lives.