When you hear the phrase Indian feminist, who immediately comes to mind? Recently blogger Battameez posted this question and surmised that Deepa Mehta, Arundhati Roy and Gayatri Spivak would lead this list. To that one must surely add Vandana Shiva, Vina Mazumdar, Urvashi Butalia and many others; happily the list is extremely long.
For me personally the words Indian feminist call up the warm and energetic smile of Sandhya Puchalapalli, a pioneer in the field of ending son preference. You likely don’t know that name—but you should. Sandhya lives in the 350,000+ town of Kadapa, Andhra Pradesh, and is the Founder and Director of Aarti Home. Since 1992 she has not only provided a loving home for abandoned children (who are mainly girls) but has built a high-quality school for the residents and 125 additional children from nearby slums. That in itself did not satisfy her, however, and along the way she also set aside part of the school and made a village women’s textile training center. The result is a unique life-based approach to the problem of girl devaluation, a promising road ahead to restoring gender balance. (If you are new to the topic of female foeticide and India’s 2011 child sex ratio of 1000 males to 914 females, here are some starting points: Tulsi Patel’s edited collection Sex-Selective Abortion in India and Mara Hvistendahl’s Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys over Girls and the Consequences of a World Full of Men.)
A girl is too often seen by struggling families as an expense and a liability, a child who needs a dowry 2x the family’s yearly income, and whose energies will only benefit her future husband’s family. Yet in the drought-prone and dowry-practicing region of Andhra Pradesh, Aarti Home is helping change that perception. “More shelters and schools will not stop mothers from abandoning their girl children,” says Sandhya. “I noticed that people were pointing to our girls, and saying, ‘Those are the lucky ones.’ It should not be luck to be a valued child.” Sandhya and her team searched for a way to demonstrate the gifts of girls, and create multi-generational mindset change. In Sandhya’s words, “Women are not independent. If they were, why should a mother abandon a girl child or a mother-in-law instigate a dowry death? To transform women from being partners in crime to agents of change, what is needed is economic and emotional independence.”
To that end, Aarti Home has trained over 5,000 non-literate village women in income-making skills such as embroidery, tailoring, design and block printing. This assures they have income-making skills. A fair trade cooperative has been established and Aarti Home now employees thirty women. Each success story helps the surrounding community actively believe that women are learners and earners. It is powerful to see an abandoned child transformed into a confident software professional and a submissive daughter-in-law refuse to get rid of her child and continue to bring in needed family income. Skeptics thereby observe what should be obvious to all: women succeed through talent, discipline, training and vision.
After learning about the Home through Ashok Prasad’s BBC documentary India’s Missing Girls, I volunteered there in January of 2009 and then had several long stays there, twice with groups of US University students. Naturally, no short blog entry can do justice to all of Aarti Home’s initiatives or to PV Sandhya herself. However, testaments to her being a second mother and inspiring feminist to many people (including the 70+ volunteers who over the years have come from all over the world) are flowing onto social media pages, as she is currently being considered for an Impact Award by the Global Women’s Leadership Network (Please consider showing your support! Voting just takes a few seconds at http://www.gwln-contest.strutta.com/entry/265634 ).
Sandhya wears peacefulness like a second skin. She radiates love. But she also has the determination and strength of a lion. Convinced that the organization can never do enough, as she enters into her sixth decade of life, she is constantly moving and seeking new ideas, seemingly effortlessly collecting friends and allies in every sphere. Sandhya has unyielding faith in human beings to create the society they desire. The home compels witnesses to focus on finding and creating joy – and celebrating it. As one of my visiting students concluded, “Sandhya Puchalapalli has created a place to gain skills to empower yourself, no matter your circumstances. I will always think back to Aarti Home as embodying the potential of the human heart.”
Photo by Dr. Kent Becker, Photovoice Wyoming