Gram Vikas: Clean Water Breaks Down Barriers

Walking through villages in Northeast India, I was astounded and dismayed by the devastating impact of the water and sanitation crisis. My path quickly became a Indian woman’s journey as I walked miles to the nearest water source. Shallow and open contaminated wells awaited me at the end of the trek. I sat and listened to women describe their need for clean water and desire to have proper sanitation facilities.

Gram Vikas-Woman cleaning the toilet roomMy mission to empower women to gain access to clean water and proper sanitation took me to the rural and poor state of Orissa. What I discovered was something remarkable. Clean water was flowing freely from taps in people’s homes, women were bathing their children in well-built bath houses and children from different castes were playing together outside. Men and women were sitting together in community meetings discussing water and sanitation, economic growth and trade for their community.

In reality, many rural communities in Orissa lack access to clean water and proper sanitation. Poverty is not the only reason that people lack this precious resource. The issue is deeply rooted in the society’s social structure. India’s caste system is one of the world’s longest standing social hierarchies. The Dalit people are considered “untouchables” and outcasts in society. In Orissa, Dalits are not allowed to drink from the same water source as those from a higher caste. Even worse, Dalits are given a scheduled time to collect water.

Government schemes have brought water and sanitation “solutions” to the poor. “Toilet graveyards” are littered throughout the countryside. Weeds are growing out of abandoned public open air toilets. As a result of the government installing shallow wells that inevitably run dry, non-working hand pumps are abandoned.

Is this a dream?

Just because a person is poor, it doesn’t mean they deserve poor solutions.  – Joe Madiath

Talking with Gram Vikas village chief about WASH1I listened to these powerful words from Joe Madiath, the Founder of  Gram Vikas. Gram Vikas has been working in Orissa for over 30 years to bring clean water and sanitation to marginalized communities. Last year, I had the pleasure to meet Joe and spend 3 weeks with his field team in Orissa. I learned about their model to bring 24 hour piped water supply and proper sanitation to some of the most remote communities in Orissa. The Gram Vikas Mantra includes community cost sharing, social and gender inclusion. Their approach requires a high level of community engagement and participation. Every family must agree to total sanitation before they can receive clean water. Communities must contribute the raw materials to construct bathing rooms and toilet facilities. When I first met Joe, I thought “Is this even possible?”

Can clean water and proper sanitation bring communities together?

The answer is:


Women, men, Dalits and those from upper castes must be included in the conversation. Before Gram Vikas will work with a community, everyone must agree on their need for total sanitation. A woman’s voice must be heard. The whole community must work together.

Talking with Gram Vikas communitiesOf course community cooperation does not come without a price. Many women and Dalits have fought for their rights to speak on this important community issue. Women often are forced to stand up to male villagers, a task normally against cultural tradition, in order to reach a compromise.  Women continue to fight for the right to clean water, even if they are excluded from the conversation.

It was a powerful experience to sit and hear how clean water and proper sanitation is changing entire communities in one of the most neglected regions of India.

On Tuesday, fellow blogger Jordan Teague kicked off World Water week by talking about World Water Week and Women. She posed the question, “What would the world look like if the simple act of having clean water nearby was realized?”

As World Water Week comes to a close, I want to share some fantastic news with you. Charity Water is partnering with Gram Vikas to bring clean water to 100 villages. Help promote social equality and break the cycle of poverty through supporting their campaign.

By clicking here you can start your own campaign and help restore dignity among communities in Orissa.

Sexual Violence is a Global Epidemic – And none of us are immune

Recently, my social media feeds were  overwhelmed with posts about this CNN iReport story by Michaela Cross. The piece recounts her experiences with sexual harassment as a Western woman in India during her Study Abroad term. From inappropriate stares to uninvited physical approaches, most of what she describes I can relate to as a Western woman who recently returned from India after a year living in the City of Bangalore.

I, too, felt the eyes on my body every time I stepped out in India. I was approached by men I didn’t invite into my space, men who refused to leave, men who got uncomfortably close. I was groped and followed. I was the object of crude comments. Every time I wanted to go out, I felt restricted because of my sex. In India, the term ‘eve-teasing’ is used to describe public sexual harassment of women – and it happens all the time.

For every negative experience though, there were ten positive ones. My time in India was marked more by wonderful encounters than by negative ones – but sometimes, the negative experiences leave a deeper mark. Another University of Chicago student responded to Cross’ account from a different perspective. In a very powerful and important piece, she highlights not only another side of the Country, but also the danger of attributing this behavior exclusively to India.

Sexual violence isn’t India’s disease – it’s a global epidemic.

While in India, I was also aware that what I was experiencing was nothing compared to the harassment, violence, discrimination and danger that millions of Indian women and girls face every single day.  I knew that should something happen, I had options. I could go to the police or to my embassy. I could leave, and never look back. But the Indian women who deal with this every day – what are their options? Many of them are poor and from lower castes, without any opportunities for escape or justice. Many endure violence at the hands of their husbands or other male family members daily. Many lose their lives to this violence – for no other reason than being born female. This happens today, tomorrow and beyond, to thousands of Indian women who never make the headlines of CNN, BBC or Al Jazeera – Women who don’t have the option of sharing their experiences through blogs.

Infograph: World Health Organization
Infograph: World Health Organization

Even though I had options, leaving India would not have solved the problem because this doesn’t happen only in India. I’ve experienced and witnessed sexual harassment in every country I’ve visited. While sexual violence takes different forms in different places, it is still a global phenomenon that no country is free from. Sexual violence is not an Indian issue, or a cultural issue, or a religious issue. This is a universal problem that every woman is exposed to in her life, regardless of where she is born, the color of her skin, where she lives, and where she travels. I’ve been groped in Finland, followed in America, sexually harassed in bars, on streets and in public spaces in Brazil, Kenya, Sweden and Estonia. No country gets to lift itself on a pedestal with regards to this issue. I believe Cross’ experiences were traumatizing, and I think she did the right thing by writing about her experiences – but I also think that we have to be careful not to demonize an entire country or culture.

We have to condemn the behavior itself, no matter where it happens, no matter who the target is. We have to send a message that no amount of sexual harassment is acceptable, whether it is verbal or physical, and that there are no excuses. We have to work towards a world where every woman and girl has a voice and options – where no victim of sexual violence has to stay silent, or remain in a violent situation because they don’t have the same choices as others.

Many victims of sexual harassment or abuse never come forward, and it must have taken a lot of courage for Cross to share her story. I hope the discussion can now move beyond India and beyond focusing on one particular country. Sexual harassment happens in every single corner of the world, to every single type of women and girls – and we must never become blind to it, or accepting of it. Not in India, not in the United States, not in Finland – not anywhere.

FINAL Featured image: UN Women

Gendercide in India: Interview with Nyna Caputi, producer and director of documentary film “Petals in the Dust”

Petals in the dust 2Nyna Pais Caputi, the producer and director of the film Petals in the Dust, is originally from India and currently lives in the Bay Area. She founded the Global Walk for India’s Missing Girls in 2010, which is an international awareness campaign on “gendercide” in India that has taken place in over 25 cities and five countries. Caputi’s film, Petals in the Dust, is a documentary that brings to light the tragic murders of millions of Indian girls and women due to a preference of sons among Indian society. The film explores the roots of misogyny, the experiences of women across socioeconomic and political lines, and the efforts bring an end to gender-based violence. The upcoming film’s trailer has been screened in numerous cities in India, Canada and USA, and is quickly drawing attention from people. Girls’ Globe catches up with the woman behind the camera.

Jasmine: You are an activist and founder of an international awareness campaign on young girls. How did you come up with the idea of Petals in the Dust? What does this mean?

Nyna: I had always wanted to do a film on social justice. I travelled to India and was looking to adopt a little girl. A supervisor in one of the orphanages told us about how they used to drown baby girls in the lake close the orphanage. I went home and did some research, and discovered that 50 million girls had been killed in India. I interviewed women in India who have faced discrimination across the socio-economic strata. I interviewed activists and found that sex-selection was happening even in the big cities, across geographic, socio-economic and religious barriers, and that women face violence from the womb to the tomb. I then chose to do a film on gender-based violence. I chose the name Petals in the Dust since it is creative and indicates the plight women face when they undergo such violence.

 Jasmine: Tell us a little about your documentary. How does it address the issue?

 Nyna: My documentary has three parts. The first part makes people aware of what the problem is, why it is happening and what the consequences are for India. It then moves to solutions. I have shown activists talking about what they see as solutions.  The documentary includes several NGOs in India. I also interviewed an orphanage that educates and feeds girls. I spoke to Varsha Deshpande, founder of Led Ladkiyaan, an organization that fights against sex-determination and does undercover research on sex-selective abortions.

Jasmine: What did you find after speaking with violated women in India? How did you have them open up to you and speak about their experiences?

Nyna: I spoke to a woman in India who had killed every single female child she had given birth to, until she conceived a boy. It was after talking to her for a while that she told me that she had been raped herself. She didn’t want her daughters to face the same pain and stress that she had faced when she was a child. She didn’t have to worry about her son.

Jasmine: Much of your focus is on the fixed mindset of people on female feticide, even among the elite in the country. How does abortion instigate this discrimination?

Nyna: From ultrasounds to sex-selective abortions, gendercide is a billion-dollar industry. Doctors are quite greedy. Abortion Petals in the dust 3after the first three months of pregnancy is illegal in India and can only be carried out if the mother suffers a health crisis. Doctors are known for aborting baby girls under the pretext that the mother would suffer a nervous breakdown if she had to give birth to a girl. The law is often circumvented and activists in India have told me that even the police and government officials believe that a woman should have a son. Very few law-breakers are imprisoned or persecuted for sex-selection.

Jasmine: I’ve heard of cases in the rural areas where daughters are often killed since they do not contribute financially to the family. Why do you think female feticide and infanticide occur in the urban areas and among the Indians who are above the poverty line?

Nyna: It’s more than just a lack of protection that causes people to discriminate against their daughters. It has now become a status symbol for people living in the cities to demand fancy cars as dowry when their sons get married. Women feel a sense of social incompleteness when they only have daughters as children. The more money people get, the more materialistic they become. Smaller families who don’t have many children, either for financial reasons or otherwise, want to limit their single child to a son. If a family has one daughter, they usually want their second child to be a son, and when they conceive, they have so much technology available to them to make that sex-selection possible. Educated men have told doctors how they don’t feel like a man if they don’t have a son. The mindset is passed on from generation to generation.

Jasmine: You say that sex-selection is often carried out by the educated people. If education isn’t an end to the practice, how can it be curtailed?

 Nyna: Education doesn’t seem to hold any weight with the issue. Doctors, engineers and lawyers have been known to discriminate against their baby daughters.  What we need is gender-studies to be taught to people across the board. Schools should have a mandatory class on gender studies.

Jasmine: What are the responses you are getting? If there is something you want your viewers to take back from your documentary, what would it be?

 Nyna: The trailer is in the process of reaching out to more people. I’ve had people talk about what has happened in their families. We have had walks in over five countries and have received correspondence from various NGOs and non-profits. Many of the protestors are girls as young as 15 years of age in Chennai. If I can motivate young girls to join my cause, my work is already done. I want the way women are looked at in India to change. That starts with discussions on gender equality. Often girls grow up with the belief that they aren’t equal to their male siblings First and foremost, girls need to understand that they are equal to boys. When these girls grow older they prefer having a boy to a girl. We all need to learn to respect women.

 Learn more about Petals in the Dust by visiting and

All photos courtesy of Petals in the Dust.


Repercussions of Dowries and Arranged Marriages in India

In India, the caste system, dowries, and arranged marriages are sustaining a hostile environment for women in the country.

Immersing yourself in a culture or population to find out its needs and not imposing your beliefs upon others are lessons that have been vital in my study and practice of public service and public health. As cultures come together and the world grows smaller, this is not the time to abandon tradition, pass judgment, or foster hatred. Throughout history, fear and misunderstanding of differences have cost our world far too much. However, the shrinking of the world has also created an opportunity to investigate the fine line between tradition and injustice. Injustices can be passed on under the guise of tradition, and are costing individuals opportunities, health, and in some cases even their lives. These things need to be talked about.

It is an accepted practice for men of India’s Perna caste to “pimp” their wives as a way to earn income for the family. A detailed article in the Pacific Standard examines the lives of Perna women and includes the following quotes:

“She met her husband on the day of her wedding, becoming his second wife at the age of 17…two years later, his prostitute”.

“I knew it would happen, it’s very normal,” she said. “I do it to earn for my family.”

“It happens to every girl.”

“You get used to it.”

The article also explains why an entire village was absent of women ages 15-45. “They are all in Bombay…” Families are paid, sometimes as little as $50 for their daughters. In Calcutta (also known as Kolkata) and Bombay (also known as Mumbai), the girls are priced according to beauty and age. “Pimps (give) them to brothel managers for “seasoning”—repeated rape—and the girls, many between 9 and 13 years old, (are) then kept in bonded labor, expected to service 10 or more customers a night for an average of $3 each.”

A recent BBC article revealed that women in Kerala, India, are being abandoned by their husbands at an alarming rate. Due to economic hardship in the area, men are getting married, taking their dowries, and moving elsewhere to find work, often times never returning. The women of Kerala, who are told that the most important aspect of their lives is to become a wife, have now lost everything. These women lack opportunity to create a life independent of their husbands, and  are currently facing high rates of depression.

To me, the dowry suggests that women are inferior to men, and it often costs women much more than its monetary worth.

Outright violence such as dowry killings that occur if a man believes he should have been paid a larger dowry, or families being torn apart because of dowry discrepancies, are some of the severe consequences of dowry practice. What I hope to present here, is the problem with a tradition that creates a lack of opportunity and independence for women and sends out the message that prostituting and abandoning your wife is acceptable. This is the underlying dilemma.

Buying and selling of women is a global phenomenon. As we work to eradicate this problem, usually occurring behind closed doors, we must remember that it is also occurring in plain sight. Women are bought and sold in broad day light under the guise of marriage.

Rukshira Gupta, the founder of Apne Aap, an organization that creates alternative opportunities for children of sex workers in New Dehli, explains that women in India are in danger from conception to death. “They could be victims of sex-selective abortion, if they are born they may be left out to die, if they survive they’ll get less food than their brothers, be pulled out of school to help with chores at home, be married early, risk death during pregnancy, be sold into prostitution, or die begging as widows.”

A ‘Women in the World’ article outlines inadequacies in current legislation aimed at protecting women in India, and how the caste system is playing a role in its failures.

What will it take to improve the status of women in India? Where should the line be drawn between custom and injustice?

*All images by Liz Fortier. People portrayed in the images are not related to the post.


Professor Gita Sen talks about women's and girls' empowerment in India

I had the opportunity to attend a session organized by the Center for Budget and Policy Studies here in Bangalore, India, as part of a lecture series on development and gender. This talk was by well-know and internationally acclaimed development economist, professor Gita Sen, who has done substantial work in the areas of gender, health, population and human rights. Her talk was focused on women’s empowerment in India, and the next steps she believes are essential for India to move from rhetoric to reality in terms of gender equality and women’s and girls’ rights.

Gita SenProfessor Sen started her talk by noting that majority of people today agree that gender equality and women’s empowerment are goals we do need to strive for collectively, and that improving the situation of girls and women will also benefit societies and countries on a larger scale. Despite this, the issue of gender equality still often remains on the level of talk and rhetoric. While much progress has been made in the last few decades, just as much still remains to be done – and, as she noted, sometimes the realization of very basic rights, such as protecting girls and women from violence, still seems to be light years away.

Sen stated that the definition of “women’s empowerment” is still a very contested issue, and there is no single generally agreed upon definition of what we mean by “empowering women”, or “women’s empowerment”,which makes the task even harder. She did, however, list three components that she believes are essential for women’s empowerment to happen in the Indian context:

  1. Role of the government: Strong and clear policies need to be in place that either particularly target women and girls, or clearly take women’s and girls’ situation into account
  2. Implementing those policies effectively: Sen noted that India has several laws in place to protect women and girls and promote gender equality, but currently those laws are not implemented properly – or sometimes at all
  3. Women’s own mobilization and self-empowerment – and here I think she made her most important point of the whole talk:

“Nobody else empowers women – Women empower themselves.”

Sen stated – and I fully agree – that we, as societies, as groups, as organizations and as individuals, can create a supportive and enabling environment for women’s empowerment, but nobody can empower women for them. The role women and girls play in tis process is crucial – empowerment cannot be a top down process, or something that comes from outside. It has to start from women and girls themselves.

Sen focused on three thematic areas that she feels are particularly important in the Indian context for women’s empowerment: 1) Work and labor rights; 2) Women in decision making; and 3) Freedom from violence. She noted that while many processes, policies and laws have been put in place in India to support these areas, women still have to struggle for decent income and economic independence, lack access to political decision making bodies and processes, and face rampant violence and abuse in their everyday lives. Sen also noted that the Indian primary institution for the promotion of women’s empowerment, the National Mission for Empowerment of Women, has no clear mandate, lacks proper human and financial resources, and also has no real accountability – and without proper institutional structures, sufficient resources and actual accountability, existing laws and policies, no matter how great they may be on paper, remain on the level of rhetoric and aspirations and never truly lead to sustainable, concrete improvements in the lives of girls and women.

Despite all the challenges that still remain, Sen ended her talk on a positive, hopeful note. She said:

“We have to get real. We have to make it work, for women and girls. I believe in believing – because what else are we going to do? We have to keep dealing with these issues, and fighting for women’s empowerment in any way we can.”

I agree. There are many challenges ahead, and sometimes the task seems insurmountable – but we have to keep believing in the possibility of change in the lives of women and girls, in India and everywhere else as well. It is easy to focus on the challenges and failures, but we should also keep in mind that much progress has been made, and even small victories can mean huge improvements in the everyday lives of women and girls. So let’s get real, and let’s make it work – because, as Sen so simply put it:

What else are we going to do?

Gita Sen holds a PhD in economics from Stanford University, MA in economics from Delhi School of Economics at the University of Delhi, and BA in economics from Fergusson College at the University of Poona.She currently teaches at the Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore, India.

Selected publications by Gita Sen:

State of the World's Mothers Report: Synopsis

“The first hours and days of a baby’s life are especially critical. About three-quarters of all newborn deaths (over 2 million) take place within one week of birth. 36 percent of newborn deaths (over 1 million) occur on the day a child is born.”

~ State of the World’s Mothers Report, Save the Children

In 1990, global leaders, institutions and national governments agreed upon concrete goals to reduce poverty by 2015. Now known as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), MDG 4 aims to reduce the under-5 mortality rate by two-thirds and MDG 5 strives to reduce the maternal mortality ratio by 75 percent. Since implementing the MDGs in 1990, maternal deaths from pregnancy and/or childbirth have decreased nearly 50 percent worldwide (543,000 to 287,000). Unfortunately, the global newborn mortality rate has only declined by 32 percent. With 3 million babies still dying within the first year of life (43 percent of the global under-5 mortality rate), clearly much progress can still be made.

Image Courtesy of Save the Children

Yesterday, Save the Children published its State of the World’s Mothers Report, a report that analyzed and summarized the successes, failures, and lessons learned regarding global progress with MDG 4 and MDG 5. Here are the report’s major findings:

  • Helping babies survive the first few days of life poses the greatest challenge to reducing child mortality;
  • Three major causes of death include complications during birth, prematurity, and perinatal infections; and
  • By using proven interventions, creating stronger health systems, and training more skilled health care workers, there is the potential to reduce newborn deaths by up to 75 percent.

Image Courtesy of Save the Children

Globally, there are over 1 million estimated child deaths on the first day of life – equating to 15 percent of all under-5 deaths. Of those first day deaths, 80 percent occur in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

Sub-Saharan Africa

Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), a region accountable for 12 percent of the global population, suffers from 38 percent of the world’s first day deaths (397,000 per year; 34 deaths per 1000 live births). Unfortunately, pregnancy and childbirth also pose incredible risks to mothers. For example, mothers in Somalia face a 1 in 16 risk of dying during pregnancy and/or childbirth (18 maternal deaths per 1000 births). Across the entire region, ten SSA countries ranked as the worst for mothers to give birth and seven countries scored the highest number of first day child deaths.

Image Courtesy of Save the Children

South Asia

In South Asia, approximately 83,000 women die each year during pregnancy and/or childbirth and 423,000 babies die each year on their first day of life (more than any other region in the world). With 24 percent of the global population, the region experiences 41 percent of the world’s first day deaths (420,000 per year; 11 deaths per 1000 live births).

Although most of South Asia has become synonymous with a growing economy, great disparities and inequalities still exist, particularly in India. Enduring the most maternal deaths in the world (56,000 per year) and 29 percent of the world’s first day deaths (309,000 per year), it is safe to say that India’s economic growth benefits are not shared equally.

Although 98 percent of newborn deaths occur in the developing world, 1 percent of first day deaths take place in industrialized nations. Ranked as the developed country with the highest amount of first day deaths, the United States sustains 50 percent more first day deaths than all other industrialized countries combined (11,300 deaths per year).

Highlighting the three most effective proven interventions, the Report advocates for further investments in female education, nutrition, and family planning in order to curb maternal and newborn deaths.

Image Courtesy of Save the Children

Although newborn death is most commonly caused by complications from preterm births, other prenatal and postnatal dangers exist. Therefore, investing in prenatal and postnatal care has also proven incredibly valuable.

For HIV-infected women, mother-to-child transmission rates can be reduced to less than 5 percent with the proper antiretroviral regimen. Similarly, by treating malaria in pregnant women, incidence of newborn low birthweight can decline by 40 percent.

Tetanus, a disease that kills 58,000 mothers and newborns every year, is entirely preventable with a $0.40 vaccination. Often caused by mothers cutting the umbilical cord with unsanitary tools, tetanus also can be avoided by applying chlorhexidine, a $0.25 antiseptic, to the newborn’s umbilical cord.

Other forms of important postnatal care include educating mothers on the importance of breastfeeding, a practice that provides the newborn with essential nutrients, warmth and a strong immunity; “kangaroo mother care,” a simple and effective approach that increases child survival rate in preterm and low birthweight babies by warming newborns through continuous skin-to-skin contact on the mother’s chest; and access to low-cost antibiotics to treat sepsis.

Does your country rank in the top or bottom 10 for maternal health?

Image Courtesy of Save the ChildrenAlthough much progress has been made since 1990, we must continue to push for improved maternal and child health care around the world – particularly in the Post 2015 Agenda.


All images courtesy of Save the Children.