a letter from India

Students and parents at one of SASY’s Children’s Resource Centres in Cuddalore district

By Lyla Rogan, indigo foundation Chair

In September, Libby House and I travelled to Tamil Nadu in India, to explore how our local partners and indigo foundation can strengthen the way we assess the impact of our work with communities victimized by India’s caste system. Tamil Nadu has one of the highest rates of atrocities committed against Dalit, Adivasi and other tribal groups by dominant caste groups. We are excited and humbled to acknowledge the work of our partners – Program for Education and Awareness Building (PEAB), Mahalir Sakthi and Social Awareness Society for Youths (SASY) – and the tremendous impact they are having.

a little history

indigo foundation has worked with PEAB since 2006 and with Mahalir Sakthi since 2011. Both are grassroots organisations working for education and empowerment of Dalit, Adivasi and other marginalised communities. In 2013 SASY became our partner in their capacity as facilitators and campaigners for Dalit human rights initiatives. SASY has three decades of experience in Dalit advocacy and provides a supportive structure for indigo foundation’s partnerships with PEAB and Mahalir Sakthi.

changing lives and strengthening communities

In Madhurantakum and Madurai, through after school tuition and participation in a range of social and cultural activities, students of all ages are growing in confidence, self-belief and hope about their futures. They can now aspire to a life that is different from their parents who could not move beyond the manual labour, poverty and discrimination they were born into.

We gathered incredible stories of educational improvement and academic success. A significant number of students now successfully complete standards 10 and 12, which in turn opens the gate to scholarships and other support to complete tertiary education.

While highly important, school retention and academic success are not the only results PEAB, Mahalir Sakthi and SASY can be proud of. Students discover their individual talents in dance, music, art and public speaking and are supported to develop those talents. The tuition centres also teach students about their rights and how to exercise them to confront discrimination and improve conditions and services in their communities.

Both partners place emphasis on the social-emotional health of students. The pressures of family life and discrimination in school can be enormous and, in some cases, tragic. Alcohol abuse and family violence are very common and coexist with the discrimination and atrocities committed by dominant groups. Importantly, the tuition centres are safe spaces for children and by reaching out to and involving parents, the risks of abuse at home are gradually reduced.

With both PEAB and Mahalir Sakthi it was exciting to see the tuition centres are a hub for student participation, community leadership and engagement of women and parents in educational activities and advocacy. Many volunteer facilitators and tutors were former students who are passionate about the role they are playing in their communities. Little by little they are becoming the next generation of leaders and their talents shone through as facilitators, organisers and role models for the children.

investing in women

As we know, empowerment of women has a multiplier effect for children, families and communities. Mahalir Sakthi equips women with skills, such as teaching, tailoring and typing, so they have opportunities to earn a higher income and gain dignity through their work. Mahalir Sakthi also works with and on behalf of domestic workers to raise awareness of their rights and directly advocate for better conditions from employers.

Our visit with the Women’s Federation mobilised and supported by SASY was nothing short of inspiring. The Federation, set up in the aftermath of the devastating tsunami that struck Tamil Nadu in 2004, has 2,057 members across 4 clusters with 120 self-help groups in Tamil Nadu. Just as marginalised communities are discriminated against every day in society, so their marginalisation was exacerbated in the aftermath of the tsunami. Advocacy at this time of crisis was liberating for affected women. With small successes came empowerment and community organising. A movement was born and it has continued to grow with support from SASY.

In Tindivanum we had the honour of meeting with over 60 Women’s Federation cluster and self-help group leaders. These women spoke proudly about the profound changes that have flowed from their participation. Ten years ago, when the Federation held its inaugural meeting, many of these same women were confined to their homes by their husbands and families. In this meeting they shared their successes in improving housing, transport, agriculture and safety in their communities. One cluster leader, Sundravalli from Agarum Village, successfully stood for election as Vice President of the Panchayat (local government) despite being threatened and offered a bribe to withdraw.

A poignant moment in the trip came during our visit to the SASY office; we were having lunch with the staff team when news came in that a 11-year-old girl had been murdered in her village outside Cuddalore. SASY’s investigation and representation work into atrocities committed against Dalit people immediately spun into action. A staff member was dispatched to the community the next day to offer support to the family and begin a fact-finding mission to inform authorities and push for access to compensation and justice.

the importance of advocacy

A major learning from the visit was the critical role our local partners play in advocacy and representation. The principal causes of exclusion and poverty are structural. Sustainable change will only be achieved by challenging the societal norms, structures and institutions that prop up and condone the unimaginable atrocities and discrimination.

Individual representation (legal and social) and advocacy by NGOs and Dalit networks at a local, national and international level, is slowly raising awareness and achieving traction in delivering systemic change. indigo foundation will do what is in our power to support these efforts in line with our commitment to human rights and our understanding that change of the magnitude needed for Dalit, Adivasi and other tribal communities is only achieved through sustained advocacy, education and community empowerment.

We leave India knowing our community partners are achieving positive change in the context of a brutal caste system and optimistic about the future potential of indigo foundation’s partnerships in Tamil Nadu.

We are deeply grateful to our partners in Tamil Nadu. Special thanks to: Semmalar Jebaraj, Jabaraj Selvaraj, Mr Muthukumar and tutors of PEAB; Guna Vincent, Grace Ganthimathi and the staff and facilitators of Mahalir Sakthi; Mr Pandiyan, Mr Durai Pandi, Annie Rachel, Ms Jeyabarathi and Mr Ramesh of SASY.