Empowering change

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Continuing the work of the cowgirl nun, ASSISI PROJECTS is helping thousands of families throughout India

On 17 March 1975, a nun from India’s south named Sister Stella, travelled to rural Victoria to learn the skills and techniques to set up a dairy farm in Tamil Nadu. Her objective was to create jobs for the local community, teach unskilled villagers how to care for livestock, to generate an income and improve nutrition for children in disadvantaged communities.

Visiting dairy farming areas across the state, Sister Stella learned how to raise healthy calves and feed, care for and milk dairy cows. She even learnt how to artificially inseminate cows so that she could accelerate the genetic improvement of her herd. During her time in rural Victoria, she became known as ‘the cowgirl nun’.

After seven months working on dairy farms, Sister Stella returned to India on a commercial cargo ship, paying her fare by tending to 55 Friesian cattle in the ship’s hull. After a seven-week sea journey, the ship docked in Calcutta. Sister Stella then received payment of four cows and one bull for her efforts. With her modest dairy herd, she made a challenging 1,772km journey to a small plot of land in southern India in the foothills of the Western Ghats, which she named ‘Assisi Farm’.

From these humble beginnings, 40 years later, Assisi has now grown into an international non-government organisation (NGO) focussed on improving access to education, healthcare, income and equal opportunity in not only India, but also Cambodia and the Solomon Islands.

Though its initial work was begun by a nun, today Assisi’s work is non-denominational and not evangelistic. Assisi is an Australian Government accredited not-for-profit agency and is a signatory to the ACFID Code of Conduct, which defines minimum standards of governance, management and accountability for NGOs.

Assisi CEO Tom with Sister Stella

Since 1975, Assisi’s programs in India have helped thousands of families to lift themselves out of poverty and gain the ability to participate more fully in society and in India’s rapidly growing economy.

In the past decade, India has witnessed rapid economic growth to become one of the world’s fastest growing economies. However, according to a 2013 World Bank report, “37 per cent of India’s population (or about 410 million people) live below the poverty line, making the country home to one-third of the world’s poor.”

While India’s growth has led to significant economic and social benefits for some, there are still pervasive disparities in the distribution of wealth and lack of equal opportunity.

Assisi’s programs consist of three project areas: empowering widows and single women; helping children from disadvantaged communities and working to end violence against women and girls.

Widows and Single Women

Alcoholism amongst men in India has been a significant contributing factor to an increase in the number of widows in India, with a ratio of 1 in 10 family households now headed by a woman. Due to social stigma, women in India are often not given equal rights in the community and face a lot of discrimination. Single women are often deprived of economic opportunities and compelled to work as day labourers in construction or work in small factories to meet the daily needs of their families. In addition, single women are frequently subjected to discrimination and abuse in their work place and this impacts on self-esteem, their psychological state and physical health.

Project such as the Women’s ‘Radiance’ Bank work to improve the financial independence for single women-headed families. In Pudukottai village, three widow support groups have come together to form the first woman-led People’s bank. They have chosen the name ‘Vidiyal’, which translates from Tamil as ‘Radiance’. So far, 58 members have a capital savings of Rs. 30,000 ($625). This bank will enable them to take out loans at a low interest rate, to start small businesses, and to assist in times of need.

In the past the only option for these women was to obtain a loan from banks with interest rates of 3-5%, which was too high for these widows to service. Vidiyal People’s Bank takes a friendly approach and doesn’t discriminate. Loans are based on mutual trust, which in turn strengthens the group’s relationships. Widows and single woman are now better able to take part in public activities and functions, and take an active role in decision-making processes, as well as having revived self-esteem and confidence.

Supporting children

Kanchipuram District, in Tamil Nadu, is mostly comprised of tribal villages in which an estimated 40 per cent of adults are illiterate. While most of the children in this district attend school, it is widely recognised that they require additional education, health and extracurricular support to maximise their basic education. The young people participating in this project are mostly from disadvantaged backgrounds whose families include illiterate, unemployed and chronically ill parents, unwed mothers, widows, orphans being cared for by extended family, and people from Dalit and tribal groups.

In 20 villages of Kanchipuram, each night after school, 657 children meet for two hours of additional study. Tuition classes aim to improve basic education, including literacy skills; health and hygiene behaviours; education on gender equity; and improved livelihoods through training on financial management, life-skills and leadership skills.

Ambika, who is 10 years old, is a member of the tuition classes in Vadanalloor district. She was struggling to keep up with her school work and the project leader identified she had low vision and advised her mother to take her to the local hospital. Ambika now has glasses. When asked what has changed for her, Ambika said, “Now I can see super!” She is now learning to read and write and her mother says she is very proud of her daughter.

With her new glasses, Ambika is able to see better and is learning to read

Assisi also supports Children’s Parliaments in twenty villages where children learn about child rights and democracy. Every session, each child takes on the role of a Minister, and as a group they debate topics important to them, to further put their skills into practice.

Respectful relationships

According to the UNICEF 2012 global report on adolescents, 57 per cent of men in India aged 15-19 think that wife beating is justified. Of adolescent girls in India 53 per cent also believed that a husband is justified in beating his wife.

In 2015/16 Assisi programs will take on some complex issues. In India, the children’s programs will include ‘Respectful Relationships’ education to address the high rates of gender-based violence in India.

If you want to help Assisi to address these issues, please donate. It assists in reducing your taxable income and all funds go towards a good cause!

Donations over $2 are tax deductible. Call (03) 9650 1291 or donate online at www.assisi.org.au.
You can also visit:   https://www.facebook.com/AssisiAidProjects

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