In May, I visited the DHAN Foundation in Madurai, India’s Tamil Nadu state. This was a very exciting trip for me. Not only was it my first visit to any WomenStrong Consortium Member, but it was also my first visit to India. I had high expectations.
It’s always fascinating visiting a partner or project in the field to see their approach to women’s empowerment. No matter how you have imagined it, whatever you think you know about how things operate, it’s always very different when you’re on the ground. And so it was with DHAN. I knew they had a very effective and well-established program, but I never imagined exactly how responsive it was to community needs.
Over time, DHAN has added layer upon layer to its work, tweaking the model here, adding a program there, to ensure that it flows, and keeps up, with the changing needs of the people with whom they work. I admit that it was quite hard coming to grips with the structure of the program. So many acronyms! So many interconnecting institutions! But once I better understood all this, I was able to really appreciate the work being done.
What was clear right away was that the DHAN staff is really in a class all their own. They work long hours, know the project inside out, are thoroughly committed to the organization (illustrated, I think, by how long some of them have worked there), enthusiastic, and full of positivity about the future. They are utterly devoted to the communities in which they work.
One extraordinary example of this dedication to the organization and each other came to my attention through a story told to me by a Self-Help Group leader, a lady in her seventies, who not long ago had heart surgery. During the operation she needed a blood transfusion. On the spot, DHAN staff lined up to give blood at the hospital where she was a patient.
And then there are the Self-Help Groups. These groups, made up of thousands upon thousands of women, are a formidable force. They bring new meaning to the term “community organizing.” While I was there, I was honored to be asked to open a new pharmacy. This wasn’t just any pharmacy, full of expensive drugs and controlled by giant corporations. No, this enterprise was owned by women from DHAN’s self-help groups, stocked with generic drugs, situated deliberately in a slum where no such service had ever been available before. The newly hired pharmacist was at the opening. His salary is being paid for entirely by community contributions. He was surrounded by no less than 40 women, all his new “bosses,” and I thought he had every right to look a little nervous.
I was lucky enough to speak to some of the Self-Help Group members after the pharmacy opening and asked them why they had joined in the groups in the first place. They all had good reasons, ranging from needing money to get their kids into school to paying off debts. All of them had achieved what they wanted when they first joined the group. Then I asked a very silly question, “Why did you stay in the groups once you got what you needed?” One woman answered, while the rest looked at me slightly pityingly (I thought). “Why would we not stay in the group? Yes, my children went to school, but now I am paying for their university. I am buying land, I am building a house. The women in my group are my sisters, my mothers, and my daughters. They are my family, and I will never leave.” And it’s true. DHAN Self-Help Groups include many women who have been part of the organization for a quarter-century.
It was clear that these women have thrived. Not only are they financially better off (many of the women I talked to had self-proclaimed themselves out of poverty), and not only are they healthier (all had stories of benefiting from DHAN’s health care program), but, and I believe this to be a true marker of success in any development project, they chose to share their aspirations, their visions of a brighter future, for themselves, their families, and their communities. People only do that when they are confident that they have a voice, a support network, and financial security. These women do.
DHAN is about to start a fourth year as WomenStrong International’s partner. They have a clear plan to tackle non-communicable diseases, alcoholism, and sanitation. Most importantly, they plan to take on the mostly male, policy-makers of Madurai city. They want to make sure that the women of Madurai’s slums have a seat at the table when important, citywide decisions are made. When that happens, it won’t be just a single pharmacist who is nervous.