Standing strong

In order for tales of atrocities against them to be heard, the Dalit community needs to stand strong. (Pic from The Guardian)

On Saturday morning, our partner SASY took us to meet some Dalits from various rural communities around the Pondicherry area.

They had come to share their stories with us – stories of discrimination, torture, murder and injustice. The mood was sombre as each person described the atrocities that had happened to them and their families.

In rural communities there are no schools for older children, so many have to leave their families and stay in hostels close to where the schools are. Young Dalits in these hostels are often discriminated against and are victims of violence.

We heard how one couple were told that their 17 year old son had committed suicide. This was not the first Dalit ‘suicide’ in a hostel. They were not allowed to see their son’s body and, because they were Dalits, there was no investigation by the school and no police enquiry. The case was closed.

Another young woman quietly told us how her husband was violently taken from their home one night. He was tortured and killed. Once again there was no enquiry or investigation.

Although these stories were told in a language I did not understand, the language of pain and sadness is easily translated. I could see the anguish in these people’s eyes and faces but I could also see their strength and determination to fight for justice.

That’s where SASY, Christian Aid’s partner comes in. SASY is working with these families and others to make sure that their cases are investigated and that Dalit victims and survivors see justice done.

As we were leaving, Kashturi – whose husband was killed – grasped my hand and whispered in English: ‘Ravi, my husband was called Ravi’. It was a very poignant moment. I was humbled by Kashturi’s quiet dignity and inner strength. She is determined to get justice for Ravi and hopefully, with support from SASY and Christian Aid funding, that will happen.

When given the opportunities, Dalit communities prove themselves eager and successful in a range of self-help businesses and initiatives. Pic courtesy of our partner ActAlliance.

In a complete contrast to the morning’s meeting we went to visit another SASY project – this time a cashew nut processing business.

This business is run by a Board of 10 Directors, all of them Dalit women.

They were definitely the most enthusiastic and vibrant group of directors I have ever met.

They told us how running the business had changed their lives. One woman had never left her village and surrounding area before and now she travels all over India in her sales and marketing role. All the women are knowledgeable about all areas of the business world – finance, sales, marketing, HR, quality control and so on.

Their status has changed within their community. They now get more respect because not only are they bringing more money in to their families but they’re also employing local people too.

Their passion and enthusiasm for their work was infectious. Before too long they were asking about ideas on how they could expand and become more efficient. I came away motivated and inspired, wondering if similar businesses could be set up in other Dalit communities.

The third group of people we met on Saturday were representatives of a Men’s Federation and a Women’s Federation. They told us how SASY, supported by Christian Aid, encouraged small groups of Dalit men and women to form self help groups that later became the larger Federations.

They have now formed committees within these Federations with various roles and responsibilities, all of which are dedicated to improving the lives and rights of Dalits within the area. For example, as ‘untouchables’ Dalits may not receive blood from other castes, so the men overcame the problem by setting up their own blood donation group.

During the 4 hour drive back to Chennai I had time to think over all that I had seen and heard throughout the day. It was an emotional day, at times very sad but it was also really uplifting and motivating to hear how our partner SASY is working with the Dalit community to really change their lives. That inspired us all to keep on supporting these people further.

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From North to South

We flew 1,300 miles south to Chennai

I can’t quite believe how much we pack into each day. It’s after 11pm and I’ve been up since 4am, having flown from Delhi in the North to Chennai in the South. So tonight’s blog will be shorter not just because of how long I’ve been on the go but because I’m mentally and emotionally trying to process what I saw and heard.

Today we met our partner SASY, who work on human rights issues on behalf of Dalits. As you probably know, there is a caste system in India which has been in existence for hundreds of years. Dalits are outside the caste system and are referred to as ‘the untouchables‘ or ‘the non humans’.

SASY briefed us on the issues and what they are doing to help bring change as a result of Christian Aid’s support. The stories are horrific, it is unbelievable to think that people are treated this way. But it only really hit home when we went to visit a Dalit community to hear firsthand what their life is like.

As we drove to the village I was struck by two things: the beautiful, lush, green countryside and the shacks and huts on the sides of the roads. I was really taken aback by how these people lived. I assumed these were Dalit communities only to be told that Dalits were not ‘allowed’ to live on the main street as they called it. Their villages were set further back, in more remote areas with poorer roads.

I didn’t speak much for the rest of the journey – I was worried about what I would see and how I would react. I can’t really talk about it here just now, but what I can say is that I met some wonderful people, who told us all about what has happened to their community – arson, murder, discrimination, violent attacks and the list goes on.

I sat with their children, who told me what they wanted to be when they grow up – a doctor, an engineer, a computer engineer. They had no shoes but they had dreams like every child does. I also believe they have the ability.

Dalit children deserve the right to pursue their dreams

What they need and deserve is the right to pursue their dreams regardless of cast. The right to be seen as human and the right to be treated as equals. We have got to support them achieve those rights.

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First impressions of Delhi

I’ve only been here a few hours and my senses are overloaded.

The first thing I noticed was the fragrance of exotic spices wafting through the airport, closely followed by a cacophony of car horns all blasting at the one time totally indiscriminately. The air was hazy and dusty and I could actually taste the grittiness of it on my tongue.

Then came the ride to our hostel. As far as I could tell, no one takes a blind bit of notice of any road signs or lane markings.

Typical traffic scene here in Delhi

We were on a motorway with four marked lanes but obviously locals have discovered that if you fold in your wing mirrors you can fit 6 cars across the lanes. That doesn’t include the cyclists, the motorbikes or the families walking nonchalantly alongside the traffic. At one point we saw a car reversing speedily towards us to try and get off at the right exit. Our lovely driver did not seem at all perturbed by any of these goings on.

What surprised me the most was the amount of greenery, beautiful trees, pink, red and yellow blossoms and hundreds of plants in pots.

Makeshift camps near the train station in Delhi

But we didn’t have to go far to see disturbing sights, beggars, street children, families living  in makeshift camps.

I’m  now sitting in Christian Aid’s office preparing for tomorrow’s trip to Chennai. We’ll see what that brings.

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To do or not to do – that is the question.

As a compulsive list maker I have finally come to the conclusion that to do lists are not there to help me get organised but to make me feel stressed and inadequate.

In 2 days time I head to India and at the moment instead of focusing on what I’m going to see and do there I’m adding more items to my ‘to do before I go’ list. Is it really that important if I don’t get the rest of my winter pansies planted out? No. Do I really need to buy headache tablets before I go? Actually yes, and I should probably buy some for my husband as well. He’ll no doubt need them more than I will.

I have always travelled with my work so the children are well used to me being away. But I haven’t been on a long trip since before the children were born, which means we are all feeling a bit uneasy and apprehensive about me leaving.

My youngest son has been following me around like a shadow for the last few days. He knows I will miss his seventh birthday.  I’m also going to be away for Judy’s 2nd transfer test but thankfully she is too laid back to be bothered. I’m the one who’s uncomfortable with it. Likewise I won’t be around for Louis, who should be revising for his exams. Notice how I say ‘should be revising’, I know that if I’m not there he will find lots of other important (and essentially useless) things to do instead of studying.

But you know what, they will all be fine. This is simply me in typical mother mode, thinking that everything will fall apart when I leave, that unless I’m there things won’t get done properly. What a load of rubbish. Everything will get done that needs to get done. It will not be done the way I do it, but it doesn’t mean it’s not right (believe me when I say it has taken me a long time to finally admit that).

We all need a support network

So despite my slight nervousness about leaving the children and my greater nervousness about what state the house might be in when I come back, I know that it’ll all work out fine because I am lucky enough to have a great support network around me. I just couldn’t do this job without it.

All of which has made me realise that Christian Aid and our partners are the only support network for the people in India that we are going to see.

And now instead of thinking of my to do list, I am getting excited about seeing that support first hand and finding out what else we can do to help. I’ll keep you posted from India.

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Has anyone seen my comfort zone?

Do you ever get the feeling that you wished you could do something else, something completely different? Well that’s exactly what I felt about a year ago. It was all brought to a head by the death of my mum and a feeling that there was more to life than being the Head of Communications in a bank. But to be honest I wasn’t in a position to really articulate what I wanted. And then before I knew it I had to think about it very hard.

That’s where Anne Dargan came in, a woman I met through Women in Business. She became my coach and a good friend. For the first time in many years I actually had the space and time to think about me, my development, what motivated me, what inspired me.

After spending time with Anne I was able to say I want to work for a cause I believe in, somewhere with real values (not just those laminated on a sheet), a job that gives me the chance to experience other cultures and ways of life, something that will totally challenge me and be outside my comfort zone.

Fastforward to the end of October and I’ve just completed my second month as the CEO of Christian Aid Ireland. Let me tell you there are days when my comfort zone is as elusive as work life balance. But you know what, I have never felt so alive or so motivated. So much so that I felt I had to start this blog or I would just burst. I am oozing with new facts and bits of information. Most of my conversations with family and friends now start with ‘Did you know that…..?’

But before I get too carried away with it all, I have to tell you that Christian Aid has the most wonderful supporters. Their dedication, passion and hard work completely overwhelms me. They fundraise, they volunteer in our offices in Belfast and Dublin, they answer phones, do admin, do deliveries, make phone calls, bake and make cups of tea, honestly the list is endless. They do all they can to help and support my team and I in everything we do and we are blessed to have them. I feel that they are very much part of the whole Christian Aid family.

I could go on for hours but I’ll finish by saying that every company I have worked for and consulted for has tried very hard to get all staff to understand and buy in to their corporate vision – all with varying degrees of success. It’s noticeably different working with a charity. At Christian Aid every person is very clear about our vision of eradicating poverty and what’s even more powerful is that every supporter is too. There’s no cynicism or scepticism just a strong, passionate belief that what we are doing is right and that we will make a difference.

After only eight weeks I can confidently say we are making a difference. It’s not easy and some of the things I’ve heard and learnt about are horrendous but I’ve also heard how we’ve helped in these situations and that we are changing things for the better. In less than 2 weeks I head to India with Dean John Mann and his wife Helen and I’ll get to see first hand the work we are doing with our partners there. In the meantime there’s still another Rabies shot to go.

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Hello world

Finally up and running with my blog. Loads to tell you about how the last few weeks have gone in my new role as CEO of Christian Aid Ireland. And of course lots more to come in both work life and home life.

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