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After Tsunami, Group Works for Change in India by Focusing on Women’s Lives

In the southern Indian province of Tamil Nadu, time seems to be divided into two eras: before the tsunami and after the tsunami. “Before tsunami, we weren’t dependent on anybody for anything,” says Neataraj, a woman in the fishing village of Vellakoil. “After tsunami, we didn’t have anything at all.”

But for some villages supported by the American Jewish World Service, the deadly tsunami on Dec. 26, 2004 — and the outpouring of financial support that followed — has provided an opportunity to accelerate development efforts and focus on improving rural women’s lives.

“This disaster has given us a space to create gender equality,” says Attapan, the director of Rose. Rose is one of the Indian nonprofit groups supported by the AJWS, which focuses on international development based on the Jewish value of tikkun olam, or repairing the world.

The tsunami shook up rural Indian society, creating an opening for women to take a more prominent role.

AJWS efforts were on display during a recent trip to southern India, a region where 10,000 people died and hundreds of thousands more were left homeless by the storm.

Women from area villages gathered in a thatched-roof meeting hall in the village of Alamarai Kuppam to discuss their successes since they were organized by Guide, another of AJWS’ partner organizations in the region.

“We stopped the men from making alcohol in our village,” one women said.

Another explained, “We made demands for relief and got it,” referring to tsunami relief.

Says Deval Sanghavi, founder of Dasra, an organization that finds project partners for the AJWS in India: “We try to involve women at every stage of the process” of aid and development in order to promote gender equality.

In a country where male dominance is still the norm and girls younger than 15 are occasionally promised in arranged marriages in rural areas, there’s certainly a moral component to the pro-woman effort.

“We have a mandate to look for people who are less well off,” and that means “women, children and refugees,” says Ruth Messinger, AJWS’ president.

Results can be hard to quantify: One measure the AJWS and Dasra employ is how the leaders of their project partners are received when they enter a village.

Still, even just having the women speak out is progress, local leaders say — and for the first time, several women from the region say they will be running as candidates in local elections scheduled for next year.

There’s an economic benefit to building a woman’s movement in India and elsewhere in the developing world, says Michael Cohen, director of the New School for Social Research’s Graduate Program in International Affairs in New York: In post-disaster relief situations, women’s groups provide a vital contact for governments and aid groups because they have proven to be most effective in organizing local communities.

Working with women, particularly educating them, is probably the “best single investment” that can be made in international development, he says. “It helps on the income side and reduces the family size.”

Both elements are key to reducing rural poverty, still a major issue in India, where hundreds of millions of people live in the countryside.

The AJWS also promotes equality across castes, a complicated goal in a country where the caste system remains a major social force, although it was officially abolished in 1949. The mixture of castes among the women at the meeting in Alamarai Kuppam was striking: It included some participants who are dalit, the group once known as untouchables.

Like much of the world, the Jewish community opened up its pocketbooks after the tsunami, which killed more than 200,000 people. Jews donated to relief efforts by both Jewish and non-Jewish agencies.

Individual Jewish groups, notably the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which raised $18.5 million, have been active in relief and rebuilding efforts in Thailand, India, Indonesia and Sri Lanka.

The AJWS’ efforts in the region make for a compelling story. First, the group raised tsunami relief money equivalent to more than 40 percent of its entire 2005 budget — more than $11.2 million in relief as of Dec. 1.

The extraordinary fund-raising effort was just the latest example of the growth of the AJWS, which was formed in 1985 and has grown substantially during the last several years under Messinger.

When President Bush invited 19 nonprofit groups involved in post-tsunami work to the White House in January, the AJWS, which has received the top rating from the Charity Navigator nonprofit evaluation service, was among them.

“We think it’s fundamentally Jewish to fight oppression and to meet the needs of the poor and the stranger and to pursue justice,” says Messinger, who has also made the ongoing crisis in the Sudan, where tens of thousands of people have died in government-sponsored violence, a focus of the group’s efforts.

Until they find out about the AJWS, she says, many Jews don’t realize that supporting international relief and development and pushing for involvement in Darfur are things “they could do Jewishly.”

After the tsunami, the AJWS expanded into Indonesia and Sri Lanka, the two countries hardest hit by the storm. But the group had been working in India before the tsunami, and had developed relationships with some nonprofits there.

That prior involvement, AJWS says, helped it not only in distributing initial relief funds but in funneling aid to long-term development projects.

The accomplishments and uncertainties of relief and development efforts can be seen in southern India.

New fishing boats, often carrying the names of two or three relief groups that paid for the vessels, dot the oceanside landscape.

In the months after the tsunami, “that’s what everybody was talking about — nets and boats, nets and boats,” says Kate Kroeger, the AJWS’ senior program officer responsible for its India projects.

There’s no doubt that this work was vital, and the AJWS did a lot of it. Indian fishing communities generally are self-sufficient — they eat some of what they catch and sell some at market — but their proximity to the water made them the most likely victims of the tsunami.

However, villagers say the tsunami caused changes in ocean and weather patterns, evidenced most recently by recent heavy rains and floods that have made the ocean waters unpredictable.

“Because of the ecological change, we can’t predict how much fish we can catch this month,” says Sambat, 32, who lives in the village of Pudu Kalpakkam.

The influx of international aid has created a climate of dependence in which villagers expect handouts. To counter this possibility, the AJWS works with nonprofits screened by Dasra, giving small grants in the $20,000-$40,000 range per year.

So far the group has distributed about 20 percent of the money it collected after the tsunami. It plans to parcel out the rest during the next few years.

“A lot of donors just come and go after an emergency. But the real work really takes place a few years after the emergency,” Kroeger says.

For the AJWS, that real work means supporting women and families, with an eye on the long haul.

On a recent warm evening, as nightfall approached in the village of Devaneri, children sat in small groups on a rooftop. With directions from a staff member from a group known as Dreamcatchers, they’re drawing pictures of the sky, and which part of the sky they want to be.

“Now they sleep soundly. As a result of the exercises, the children are very normal now,” said Juliet Mary of Dreamcatchers, which works with at-risk children.

Anushya, 14, certainly seems happy. She holds up a piece of paper on which she’s drawn the moon, sun and stars, and imagines herself as a star.

“It was so peaceful there,” she says.

JTA Foreign Editor Peter Ephross recently traveled to India on a trip sponsored by the American Jewish World Service.

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