KIRF helping chronically poor Dhalit caste women and children help themselves with education and micro-loans
February 2, 2007
by Mark and Angela Kirwin
Thank you to everyone who helped with this most recent KIRF humanitarian relief trip. Our trip was a great success! In India, KIRF continued its work in conjunction with KIRF Bodhgayaodhgaya and KIRF Bodhgayaodhgaya founder and volunteer Diane Kirwin for education and micro loans to the poorest of the poor.
Our volunteers on this KIRF relief trip were KIRF founders, Mark and Angela Kirwin and our two children- whose help and assessment were invaluable.
In December 2006 we assisted the three KIRF Bodhgaya Educational Centers with much needed text books and other supplies. In addition to that we funded more micro-credit loans to chronically poor Dhalit village women due to the success of the program last year. The micro-loan programs seem to be really making a difference by raising the status of women by enabling them to be bread winners--which consistantly results in better nutrition, living conditions and education for the children. We also funded educational scholarships to four inner city slum children (two girls and two boys, all siblings), and we delivered more funds to purchase the land to build KIRF Educational Center secondary school and health clinic.
Bihar, India and the Indian caste system
The state of Bihar India has the unfortunate distinction of being the poorest state in India. In this state most women are illiterate and an academic education of any kind is a privilege usually reserved for the upper castes. The education centers run by KIRF Bodhgayaodhgaya are located in mostly Dhalit or Harijan villages situated around Bodhigaya, Bihar. Dhalits are Indians born outside the caste system and are still believed by many traditional Hindu Indians to be outcast from society. To prevent intermarriage amoung the castes women are kept as chattel and given with a dowery to the husband's family at a young age. The caste system and women's inequality was formally outlawed by Mahatma Gandhi in the 1940's. However, there is an economic incentive for the higher caste Indians to keep the status quo and laws that prevent discrimination seem to be rarely enforced in the state of Bihar.
The main economic activity of Bihar has been agriculture. Bihar is the least developed state in India and has a per capita income of $94 a year versus India's average of $255. Approximately 40% of the population of Bihar lives below poverty level.
This poverty means that a large percentage of the local population lack adequate nutrition, clean water and access to medical care. As a result, the average life span in the state of Bihar is approximately 40 years of age versus an average life span of 60 years for the rest of India. The villagers that KIRF helps work in the fields of wealthier land owners, paying off loans made for food to feed their families- in essence they are indentured servants. These people, formerly known as Untouchables, are now called Dhalits, which basically means the lowest caste.
Helping chronically poor caste children get an education through KIRF Educational Centers in Sarvodaypuri, Baidradih and Sabal Bigha
On this relief trip we visited and made needs assessments for the three presently running KIRF Educational Centers: Sarvodaypuri, Baidradih and Sabal Bigha. These three primary schools combined serve 450 students. The children are taught math and how to read and write Hindi and English.
These children would not be able to go to school if it were not for the KIRF Educational Centers. “Public” school costs money. These villagers struggle to make enough money to feed them selves. (The KIRF schools are free because of the generous international donations which keep them running.)
Once again, we were overwhelmed with the gratitude shown to us by the students, teachers and villagers at each of these schools. Our children participated in teaching math and English to the Indian children. Our children also had the amazing opportunity to participate in classes where the Indian children were being taught Hindi.
And then came the time for play! What a joy it was for these acutely impoverished children to take a recess and play with us with the balls we brought along on the trip. Our children played catch and soccer with the Indian children. They also joined their grandmother Diane Kirwin, founder of KIRF Bodhgaya, blowing bubbles in dried up rice ponds as many Indian children tried to catch the bubbles, laughing and cheering with joy. It was a tremendous exchange of social awareness for the kids from Ventura and the kids from Bihar!
Once again, we assessed the need for these schools and determined that they could best be helped with text books, slates, pencils, note books for lessons, erasers, and chalk, to for the students. It also became very apparent, that a key ingredient of education of these children is the need to play, and to play sports with each other. So we purchased cricket sets, table tennis, skipping ropes, checker boards, balls, and other board games for the children to play with during recess. We purchased these items through negotiations with shop owners in the crowded and chaotic street bazaars in the industrial city Gaya . (Gaya is the main city 45 minutes away from rural Bodhgaya. Even our interpreter from Gaya characterized his city’s crowded streets with street venders, wondering cows, stray dogs, chickens, goats, cars, trucks, bicycles, rickshaws, piles of garbage and people everywhere as “anarchy!”)
School scholarships for four siblings in Gaya that will ensure an future
Another project KIRF assisted with is the education of four slum children—two girls and two boys who are all siblings-- in Gaya. To meet them we had to hike at dusk through narrow walkways between buildings, on steep dirt paths stepping over rocks, mud and waste, up a hillside on the outskirts of Gaya. It is here that the very poorest live in huts that are packed into every space available and scrape a living off of the streets of Gaya below. We sponsored the three girls and one boy to go St. Thomas Academy school that serves the urban poor of Gaya.
Micro-loans successfull in helping village Dhalit women and their children
Finally, we were invited to a group meeting of the women we sponsored last year for micro-credit loans in conjunction with Nari Jagran Manch organization. We meet with 15 women who had benefited from the loan program. They had each paid back the loans plus the 2% interest rate ( which goes directly back into the loan program).
We met with the women and their children at Maunia and Sikitwara villages. It was here that Angie explained the power of education and business skills for women in the United States. In response, some of the women told their stories: Malti, she bought a pig and had a brisk business selling pork; Jiriya, she used the loan to pay off the mortgage on her land, after her husband died, and to grow bean crops to pay off the loan and support her family; Boati; she purchased a goat which had many baby goats. Another women purchased a bull while another started a small shop selling grocery items to the other local villagers.
These women gave us living proof that the micro loan program worked. KIRF invested funds to support another 40 women to enter the micro credit loan program in 2007.
And finally, KIRF contributed to the funds KIRF Bodhgaya is raising to build a permanent secondary school. The school will also have a medical clinic and community center with lands to grow a community orchard for food.
All of us at KIRF wish to thank you all very much for your support. Your compassion and kindness make a tremendous difference to help people help themselves.
Mark and Angela Kirwin
Kirwin International Relief Foundation