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#BeBoldforChange: Ahila Devi

WomenStrong International is an organization of bold women, from the brave girls in our Girls’ Clubs in Ghana, Haiti, India, and Kenya, to the women who face challenges each day, as they work to lift themselves out of extreme urban poverty. So the theme for International Women’s Day 2017 is one we can relate to – #BeBoldforChange. It would be hard to find a bolder, more dedicated, more innovative and passionate group of women than the Project Directors who run WomenStrong programs in our five Consortium member sites.

In honor of Women’s Day this year, we celebrate these bold women with a series of short profiles. We hope you find their stories as inspiring as we do and that these stories encourage you, too, to #BeBoldforChange.

Meet Ahila Devi

Ms. Ahila Devi, who oversees the WomenStrong program at the DHAN Foundation, says she became the bold woman she is today because of strong, extended family ties that are so common in India. Ahila grew up in a “joint family system,” with her extended family living together in one home and sharing household responsibilities, including childcare. For Ahila, this meant sharing a home with her mother’s 12 siblings and her father’s eight siblings, as well as with a courageous, self-determined grandmother. Ahila’s grandmother was a mentor and role model for Ahila and all her female cousins, and because she had been unable to finish her own education, she always stressed the importance of school as a way to overcome poverty.

Ahila was also encouraged by her parents to confidently pursue her education and her dreams. Her father, an optimistic, determined man, told her, “Everything is possible, and everything you need is already within you.”

Such a loving, encouraging upbringing enabled Ahila to pursue higher education. She dreamed of becoming a university lecturer and was so outspoken about her dream that her nickname at university was “Professor.” But her dream changed when, as part of her post-graduate studies in agriculture, Ahila visited the DHAN Foundation in Madurai, a city of a million people in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

There, she witnessed DHAN’s innovative, grassroots anti-poverty work and was impressed and inspired. She admired DHAN’s practice of sending professional staff to live among the low-income people with whom they worked. The practice gave DHAN staff unique insights into the needs and aspirations of those in its programs and bred a mutual understanding and respect. DHAN believes that staff should first listen and learn from the community and that this process creates a democratic system throughout DHAN that is less hierarchical than that of most development organizations. Ahila had several classmates who joined the DHAN Foundation after graduation and raved about the fulfilling nature of their work, and she soon did the same.

During her first immersion in one of the low-income communities with which DHAN was working, she lived in the slums with cremators, which she described as a deeply moving experience. She soon was working closely with impoverished women and saw their collective power when they organized themselves into groups. “Women are not objects of social change,” Ahila says; “they are the agents of it.”

As in her childhood, Ahila continues today to benefit from the loving support of her family, from her parents, now 75 years old, her husband (who also works at DHAN) and her own two boys. “Family is my source of strength. Family accepts you for who you are. They are the ones who do anything for you and love you no matter what. And my family truly believes in my work.”

DHAN is family for Ahila, too. And it is with the support of these two families that she works to enable women in Madurai, India, as they lift themselves out of extreme urban poverty and create more hopeful and prosperous lives – a bold woman helping other bold women, every day.

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