Giving women a better future

Summer resident Carla Johnston set to spend winter, spring in central India

CarlaJohnston-0179EditedA summer resident of Grand Bend, Carla Johnston is known to many in the area as the daughter of Chris Bregman, manager of the Grand Bend Chamber of Commerce. Johnston is finishing her last semester at F.E. Madill Secondary School in Wingham before flying February 1 to Indore, in the state of Madhya Pradesh in central India. There, she will volunteer until June 8 at the Barli Development Institute for Rural Women, a vocational and residential school for rural, tribal and village women to learn basic domestic, literacy and job skills. The trip was suggested by Grand Bend’s Gord Britton, who visited the institute in December after several years of interest in their project.
“So much of social and economic development does not hit the mark,” Britton says. “The West tends to see social and economic development delivering a package from developed countries to undeveloped countries. We’ve been doing this since the mid-20th century and the formation of the United Nations in 1948. The greatest minds came together to solve global poverty, and all these NGOs started. The United Nations contracted a study in 1968, and it showed to everyone’s dismay and complete surprise that poverty got worse in those 20 years. Ten years later, they did another study and got the same results.
Economic development is not about delivering a package, but rather developing the capacities of the people themselves. This institute views the person as a noble being lacking some capabilities that they have the capacity to learn. Local people teach local people. It’s peer mentoring.
When a woman is not educated, they’re told what to do by their fathers, brothers, husbands, and the local village leaders. The women have no power to make any decisions whatsoever. They literally don’t know how to make a decision because they don’t need to make any.
“(At Barli) they’re taught is to speak the national language, Hindi, and then they’re taught to read and write Hindi. These women go back and transform their families. A literate woman will educate her kids. An illiterate woman will not. The cycle of poverty stops by simply focusing on women, on mothers.”

As told to Casey Lessard
Portrait by Casey Lessard
India photos courtesy Gord Britton

Even though I live in a small area, I’ve always wanted to learn about other cultures. Small town life is great, but I’ve always wanted to see more and see the world. I’ve always wanted to break away from the small town, but I know I’ll probably get into the big city and find out that I want to go back to my small town. I’ve always wanted to bring some sort of positive social change to the world.
I will be working in the office and I will also be helping teach a computer class. They do gardening work because they are self-sufficient, so everything they need they grow, except for rice. The gardens are extensive, so all of the trainees – the women who come to the institute – work in the gardens, and I’ll get to help out with that.

Indore is in the state of Madhya Pradesh, in central India, and it’s one of the poorest states in India. Indore is a city about the size of Toronto. It’s not very well known because it doesn’t have any tourist attractions. It’s a relatively poor city because Madhya is so poor. It has a very low education rate in that area. One in 100 girls who start high school graduate. In India, the national average is 14 out of 100.
Women are in this situation because of the social issues that have always been there related to the social inequality of men and women, the historical prejudices of what a woman’s role is supposed to be there. They’re not supposed to be the head of the household, and that’s why they don’t get an education and further themselves.
The institute was started 25 years ago by Dr. Janak McGilligan, who is a Baha’i interested in doing something good for India. It started as a three-month program and turned into a six-month program. The women come from all over India, but most from Madhya Pradesh.
They learn domestic skills, job skills and social and community skills to build their communities and the people around them. They give them job skills, but simple job skills. They give them domestic skills, like sewing and cooking. Things that they can bring back to the community that are modest in the amount they’re moving forward. They give them skills that wouldn’t isolate the women from the community. They want them to be a special part of the community to help it develop.
Most communities are actually very welcoming to it. There have been some communities where the men try to sabotage the institute representatives going in to talk to women. They’ll say you have to pay to go to the institute when it’s actually free, they’ll make up rumours that they teach evil things or will make havoc for the community. There are some men who aren’t happy with this, but most communities are happy because the women don’t just develop themselves; they’re learning skills to help that whole community to come out of their poverty. They have prejudices that women should have certain skills and a certain place in the community, and that they should stay in that place.
The families that send the women to the Barli Institute are very supportive. They want the women to go there because they want them to develop and be a strong part of the community. It’s usually other community members who are holding them back.
One woman, before she went to the Barli Institute, couldn’t read or write and one day, a group of men came to her door and told her she had to sign a contract. She didn’t know what it was about, and they told her it was a building contract. Later, she learned she was signing off on a loan that was very substantial with interest rates that she couldn’t afford. After the Barli Institute, she now has her own job, she can read and write, speak a little bit of English, and she got out of the loan. She has confidence now that she doesn’t have to follow what people say; she can make her own decisions.
You need to be able to make your own decisions to break out of poverty. You need the education that can get you a job to bring development to your country. We take our education for granted here in Canada. It’s the social norm to go to school. We get it and don’t realize it’s the education that has developed our country. In India, to get a simple education can bring the standards of a village up much higher.

I think I’m going to learn more to appreciate education. I know that I’m very privileged living in Canada. They’re getting the simplest education they can get. I think I’m going to learn to value the education we have available to us and make that part of my life.
In June, I’ll be coming home to work in Grand Bend, and then I’m off to university for International Development. I’d love to work for the UN; that’s my dream job. I’d like to do what I’m doing in India for the rest of my life.