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Global Sorority


W’e’re excited to announce that we are coordinating with the Passion Foundation to create a leadership project for young girls and women (aged 11-24), most likely daughters or other younger female relatives and friends of the women currently participating in the dialogue project. The Passion Foundation will be in India for four days in December to work with Brinda to run these groups.

Additionally, the Passion Foundation is filming a global documentary which will feature a day in the life of one young woman from India (among other places such as Kenya, Italy, Ireland, Philippines and Vietnam). Learn more about supporting this remarkable film here.



These are some of the comments from the women who participated in the dialogues project:

“I like to come to this group because we talk about the things that are important to us, and we get to decide what we want to talk about.”

“When people ask me questions, they don’t expect anything intelligent to come out of me. Here, people ask me questions, and when I speak, they are willing to listen and want to listen. It is nice.”

“No one ever asked me how I felt when someone in my family asked me to do something I don’t want to do. The fact that I had to do that for our group homework, it just made me think a lot.”

“Because of the confidentiality, I am free to say whatever I want here, and no one calls me stupid or that I don’t have brains. I am not judged for what I think.”

“The confidentiality was really important. When I talk, it is almost like I’m gossiping, but I’m gossiping about myself.”

“I wondered, what is the point of this meeting, and was always thinking about my family and my children. But I realized there are things I can learn from listening to other women. Now I don’t worry about my family, I pay attention in the meetings.”

“I am happy to come to this meeting because I am able to speak freely, and I realized that although the women in this group put on a different face outside, we are all going through the same things.”



Working on the written translation of the research I had done on the social and labor challenges of domestic workers in India was more complicated than simply taking my English version and translating it into a comparable version of the local language. The primary audience, domestic workers, would mostly have no education or low-levels of education. Therefore, we wanted to create a DVD that would be accessible to those with low reading levels. However, we still thought it would be useful to create a written summary for women with higher levels of education, such as Standard 8-10. I know these women can be be very perceptive and sophisticated when it comes to understanding social concepts and dictates so it was difficult to figure out what aspects of the research to include and what to leave out. I wanted to keep the writing simple and accessible, and at the same time I didn’t want to omit relevant points that might help them to better understand the changing culture they found themselves in. For example, many of the domestic workers who participated in the research mentioned differences in the way they were treated by employers in extended, multi-generational families, versus the way they were treated by newly-emerging nuclear families in urban areas. I had quoted Qayum and Ray’s 2003 article, ‘Grappling with Modernity: India’s Respectable Classes and the Culture of Domestic Servitude’ but wondered whether the ideas were too complicated for this audience in a written form: Traditional concepts of servitude are conflicting with modern-day value systems and the idea that ‘servants’ are a necessary aspect of a household “sits uncomfortably with contemporary notions of privacy and ideologies of the nuclear family, especially in the more confined space of the apartment”.

To translate this properly, the translator would need to have an excellent grasp of English and then translate it, but also simplify  the entire meaning in such a way that women who are not familiar with academic-level writing in their own language can understand it clearly.

I was lucky to have found Suma Anil of Fourth Wave Foundation, as she takes her role as translator very seriously. After she worked on an initial draft, she decided to arrange a meeting with some domestic workers who had higher levels of education to ask their opinions of the translation. They sat and listened as she read the research in its entirety, which took about thirty minutes, and asked them for their feedback. They felt the level of the translation was too “high” for them in some places, and that this was basically due to their lack of education. Now Suma has gone back to work not so much on the translation, but to re-write it in such a way that it retains the original meaning in a layman’s language. Without an accessible level of the local language, the translation would essentially be incomprehensible for the domestic workers who want to read this research, and all the work we put into it would be useless. Going through this process of translating even such a short document of six pages, I realize just how critical it is to get the right translator.



Sometimes this project can seem very complicated to explain to people, as it has so many moving parts. I would say that essentially, this program is about changing (negative) habits and using an agreed upon goal to practice more positive, useful responses. Brinda gave a very simple example to illustrate this concept. She said that many of these women have been taught that to be considered a ‘smart girl’ or a ‘smart woman’, they should always answer immediately when someone asks them something.

“Can you wash all these clothes for 100Rs?”

“Yes, of course,  I will do it.”

It is only later when they have thought it through that they realize it will take a lot longer than the money is worth, and that they have agreed to something that they don’t feel comfortable with or that they don’t feel is fair. But because they have been taught they need to answer right away, they keep on repeating this habit and find themselves in situations they may not want to be in.

So we re-define ‘smart’. It is not smart to answer without thinking things through, and it is not smart to agree to something without fully understanding what you are getting yourself into. Instead, ‘smart’ means that you fully consider the consequences of what you are agreeing to before you reply, because then you will realize that you cannot wash that amount of clothes in the time you were expecting, and you will realize you are not comfortable with that salary. Then there is the practical application, how do you actually change the habit, what is the new response you will replace it with? When someone asks you if you agree to something, you thank them politely, and say let me think about it and I will get back you tomorrow.

Basically it is looking at habits and automatic responses that are not benefiting the women, becoming aware of the habit and the need to change it, and then replacing the habit with a response that better serves their needs. They then work together towards an objective and they are able to actively practice these new responses or ways of thinking in their lives, for a goal they have identified as important to them.

This example is very simplistic, but that is the foundation of what we are doing. However, many of the groups are tackling large issues that require  them to shift ingrained modes of thinking and ways of doing things around gender roles, domestic violence, sexual harrasment and class differences. Another example would be the creation of group cohesion. Rather than attempting to address major social problems as isolated individuals, they are realizing they can turn to each other and use the power of the group to deal with issues. So they are breaking the habit or way of thinking that going it alone is the only option to address challenges. But to actually apply it to their lives, first they have to overcome many of the barriers to trusting and working with each other that have developed in these communities, and that is not an easy process. But as I mentioned before, with an experienced facilitator who is able to build trust, these women are beginning to understand they have a lot more power to change and direct their circumstances than they realized.

In regards to measuring the outcomes, I have been worried about how time-consuming it was to get the women to respond to 30 multiple choice questions. One of my initial ideas was to have someone read off each of the questions, and then have the women check off the box (ie. strongly agree – strongly disagree which would be symbolized by smiley faces) themselves. Therefore, it wouldn’t take any reading or writing.

I know researchers often have trouble administering these types of questionnaires to particular groups, and I could clearly see why. I thought the questions were straightforward and easy to understand, and given the responses of the initial group when answering orally, the problem didn’t seem to be that the questions were too difficult or confusing. I thought I had by-passed the issue of literacy by having someone read out the questions to them, but as I saw the women glance at each other uncertainly, I knew I had mis-read the situation. During the deliberative dialogues, although they often seemed unsure of the format and hesitated before speaking up, when they finally decided to participate, they spoke with a lot of clarity and confidence. When they were asked to fill out the questionnaires, it was the first time I saw doubt and discomfort in their demeanor. In the end, they were just looking at each other’s sheets to see what the next person had checked off in order to figure out what the right answer was. I almost started laughing because the answers were obviously useless. Everyone had written down the same thing. We ended up using volunteers to sit down with each of the participants to fill out the sheets individually, but that method was simply not practical or sustainable.

However, an interesting thing has happened during this long, labor-intensive process. As the women have been able to have their questions fully answered – “Why do we need to check off these boxes, why don’t you just ask us?” “You have asked us if we would recommend these dialogues to our friends, but all the dialogues are filled up so no one else can join. So how could we recommend it?”  –  I’ve realized these kind of questionnaires are completely foreign to them, and it’s something they’ve never had to do. For example, they signed their names on the front of the sheet – I imagine for them, anything they have to sign is usually a signal of something serious, like a legal contract or government-related, so they were not sure what they were getting themselves into. But as the volunteers have patiently sat down with each of them, explained the questionnaire, explained how to answer in a multiple choice format, and answered all of their questions, we came to realize that the first time is the hardest. After they understand the context, they will be able to fill out the forms for themselves in the future. Once they sat down with the volunteers and were told what each of the multiple choice answers actually meant, almost all of them said, “That isn’t what I think, I want to change my answer.” The next time, they won’t need anyone to explain the purpose of the questionnaires or to help them to fill it out.

It was the entire concept, the idea and the format of the questionnaires, that was unfamiliar to them, not simply the literacy aspect of it. When they were able to ask all their questions fully, from what the 5-point scale meant  to how the questionnaires would be used to improve the program, our biggest problem solved itself. Although further clarification of the  scaling system may still be necessary and adjustments will still have to be made, the women have a much better understanding of the entire questionnaire process and we should be able to move forward without needing volunteers for each individual participant.

Emily and Bharith – or as I like to call him, the Indian Jay-Z

When I first started spending time in the slums in 2010, there were a group of students from the U.S. that were visiting, and one of them remarked, “Oh, these are kind of like middle-class slums.”

I knew what she meant. I think I expected severe poverty, people on the verge of starvation, and instead what I found were communities with constructed lanes and homes, well-fed children full of energy and curiosity, and women whom I often could not tell apart from their middle-class counterparts. Even though most of them did not have running water in their homes, I would never have guessed it looking at how well-taken care of and how well-dressed their children were. But as I started conducting the research and began to spend more and more time inside many different homes, I began to see where the gap was between their income and the necessities in life.

Most of the homes are about the size of a small bedroom, and they are usually divided into two parts. The front room often has a twin-size bed with a TV and stereo, and there is a cement divider which I thought hid the kitchen and bathroom. I had probably been in India for about three months before I realized, “Ohh, there’s no bathroom in here.” In fact, there was no running water at all. The “kitchen” was a large kerosene bottle used for cooking with small pots and pans. The water came from taps outside that women and girls would bring back into their homes in large containers. Although some homes in the slums have their own bathrooms, that is rare. More commonly people use public bathrooms. I remember in one area there were two public bathrooms for a community of 200 families, or around 1000 people.

A mark of status in the slums is therefore having a home that has running water and a bathroom. There are many different kinds of homes: some look brand new, with lovely tiles and fresh paint in bright colors, while one of the worst ones I saw was just a small room that was concrete gray, with no paint on the wall, and all their belongings pushed up along the side of their home in disarray. Most of the people living in the slums are at the poverty line, but they are able to pay the rent on their home, feed their families, send their children to school and have a little left over for non-essentials. But when you look a little closer at these communities, you see what is missing – proper sewage facilities, proper bathrooms, running water, enough beds for everyone, meals that offer nutritional value rather than just staving off hunger, etc.

The area Johncy (read Part 1 here and Part 2 here) lives in is called Ragigudda, a slum that is in the middle of being re-developed into middle class apartments. Her home is one of the last of the slums in that area, and I don’t know where she will be living a year from now. When I saw Johncy again, we spoke about how we could keep in touch if she moved out of Ragigudda. She used my phone to call her cousins Stella and Emily, and it turned out they lived in Koramangala, which was in the same area as Brinda’s organization, Global Concerns India.  They asked excitedly when they could meet me, so we arranged for the next day.

Stella always seemed like she is bubbling over with energy. She is constantly suppressing her smiles for a few seconds before laughing excitedly or chattering away to me in a language I don’t understand. She alternates between shy and affectionate. When she first saw me outside the Koramangala slums, she ran towards me and jumped into my arms, and then held on to my hand the rest of the way. It was very hot that day, so I let go of her her hand and just rested my arm on her shoulder, but eventually her hand would find its way back into mine. Later when we were talking to her mother, she sat quietly next to me without holding my hand. But as soon as we stepped outside her home, she grabbed hold of my hand again, laughing and talking in Kannada.

When I saw them, Emily, who was now 10, was the same funny, energetic girl I remembered, while 12-year old Stella had the more responsible, calm attitude of an older child. Stella asked me if I would visit their home, and I am always interested in seeing different homes and areas, so of course I said yes. Along the way, she said, “Some of my friends, when they find out where I live, won’t visit my home.”

Their mother was a domestic worker, and their father was an auto driver, and in addition to Stella and Emily, there was a younger son and daughter. I have heard the countless stories of husbands of domestic workers who are alcoholics and who contribute nothing to the family. As soon as I walked into their house, I knew this was a father who provided for his children. Their home was simple, painted in that bright (probably inexpensive) blue I had seen in many homes in the slums. The whole space was about the size of a medium-sized bedroom, and they were a family of six. But it was spotless, well-put together and had an open feeling, even for such a small space.  Their roof had cracks between the ceiling and the wall, which they had carefully plastered over with large Vodaphone marketing posters. It was the perfect example of the idea of a “middle class slum” and the gap between who they strive to be and the reality of the economic class they reside in, where you step into their organized, clean space that they work hard to turn into a home, and then you step outside into sewage that sits stagnant in useless gutters, and walk past garbage that will never be collected, scattered everywhere.

Stella talked a bit more about her family and about school, and that her parents sent her and Emily to a local private school. I was a little amazed that their parents both felt it was important to invest in the education of their two daughters. Unfortunately I couldn’t talk to them to ask them how they came to that decision and what they foresaw for their daughters’ futures. In my original research, we asked the educational background of the domestic workers, and found that 53% of the domestic workers had no education, 27.6% were educated up to 7th standard and below, and 19.3% were educated between 8th to 10th standard. There were no participants that had an education above 10th standard. I will definitely go to visit Stella and Emily again when I go back to India, and I would like to speak with their parents with the help of a translator. What expectations do they have their daughters’ futures? What would they think if I told them there are no domestic workers with an education above 10th standard, therefore, if they support their daughters’ educations up to a certain age, they can almost guarantee that Emily and Stella will not be domestic workers?

Johncy, Stella and Emily seem like young women who are supported by families with very limited options trying to do what’s best for their children. Although I am a little anxious about their futures, I am encouraged by the support they have and by their confidence, and I cannot wait to sit down and talk with all of them when I go back. I also know I will be able to find Johncy even if she moves,  now that I’m in contact with her entire extended family!

Measuring the outcomes of the deliberative dialogues is an essential aspect of this project. How do we determine whether the dialogues have had any concrete benefit to these women, and if they have not, how do we tweak the program in order to create those benefits?

There are two parts to the dialogues:

1.        issues and subjects, ie. budgeting, (wage) negotiation, domestic violence
2.        objectives, ie. how she becomes empowered, how she understands control, how to assert and be independent (“do I respect myself”, “do I have control over the salary I earn”)

We decided to look at three aspects to be measured:

a.        usefulness of the program
b.        specific activities
c.        ability to face life

For ‘usefulness of the program’, we used statements such as ‘I was able to understand the overall content of the dialogue’, ‘I will speak about this program to my friends and relatives’, and ‘I will strongly recommend people I know to attend a similar program’.

For ‘specific activities’, some statements we used were ‘I am open and frank about my feelings’, ‘I will suppress any disagreement or anger to safeguard my family prestige’, and ‘People often take advantage of me’.

For ‘ability to face life’, the statements were ‘I feel helpless and overwhelmed when faced with challenges’, ‘I have new solutions to address overwhelming situations’, etc.

With the first group, we ran a quick initial outcomes measurement where we asked the women to answer some of the questions. They were very forthright in answering them and had a lot to say. We wanted something more structured where we could have definitive measures of the outcomes, so I was eager to give them the written questionnaire.

However, the issue has become one of time. It simply took too long for volunteers to sit with each one of the women and read off the entire questionnaire to them. In addition, we would need to train the volunteers not to unduly influence the women’s answers. I had not fully realized what a time-consuming process it can be to fill out a simple questionnaire when your participants cannot read or write.

We are now looking at some alternatives. The first is to drastically reduce the number of questions so that the process can go more quickly. Another option is to run more of a focus group where the women can discuss whether the dialogues have been helpful to them, how it has been helpful to them, and how it could be improved to better meet their needs. But this may also be time-consuming. Finally, we could look at the specific goals each group has decided on, if the group has met the goal, and if not, what are the challenges to meeting this goal.

It will take a little more thought and discussion to figure out an accurate measure of the dialogues, but we have some viable options to explore.

Physical abuse is an epidemic in the communities these women come from. In some groups, 100% of the women may experience violence in their lives.  But rather than being able to find support from each other, hierarchies are created out of these experiences, where the women who don’t experience violence often feel superior to those who do.

This has led Brinda to ask the question, “What does violence mean to you?”

The purpose of the question is to explore issues like verbal and emotional abuse, and that although some women may not experience violence, abuse is occurring in all of their lives. It is also an attempt to break down the hierarchy that is built up between women who are physically abused and those that are not.

Many of the women told stories of their abuse, almost matter-of-factly at times. It was heartbreaking to hear the social belief structures that underscored the abuse and made it seem normal and like an inevitable part of life. But I was most affected by one woman who had these very direct eyes. One of the coordinators was sitting beside me that day, translating as the women were talking. They were going around the room answering Brinda’s question.

This woman said, “Life is violence.”

She talked about how her husband was an alcoholic who didn’t contribute financially at all to the family, and who did nothing but sit around all day and watch television. She did not mention it directly, but most likely she was a victim of domestic violence, and had probably experienced abuse throughout the  majority of her life. She wondered why women even continue to live except to take care of the children they brought into the world. “Otherwise, what is there to live for?” She did not break down, she said all of this with a very clear gaze, but you could see the pain behind her face.

This is what the deliberative dialogues are meant to be. I think any significant change in a person’s life begins with being able to sit with another person, or a group of people, and have the opportunity to speak their truth, to be able to say exactly what they are feeling and what is going on in their lives, personally, socially and politically.

All this pain had been building up inside this woman, and she had no one to speak to about it. There was nowhere to go to express her anger, she could only look around at her life and accept it. At this moment, she was able to say what was happening to her and express how it made her feel to a group she felt safe enough to confide in. As another women in the same group said, “I never talk about how I feel when I’m hurt, or what I go through when my family distrusts me.” In such a conservative culture, these are almost taboo areas.

The objective for the participants is to then strategize and become aware of how they can create confidence or courage within themselves, and then to see if they can express their confidence to others, and in their life. This means defining what confidence and assertiveness means to them in a concrete, realistic, and at times very modest, goal, and then actualizing it. They are then accountable to a supportive group that will work with her to make it happen. The challenges we are dealing with may be massive social issues like domestic violence, unfair labor laws and sexual harassment that we can’t swoop in and “solve” with a few workshops. However, we can build the capacity of the participants to learn more constructive and powerful ways to communicate and interact with each other as a group, to approach problems with new tools for exploring alternative methods of thinking and responding, and to formulate their own options and strategies.

After telling Johncy I would meet her the following Sunday (read part 1 here), I tried to call Johncy’s grandmother during the week, but there was no answer. I called Bharith, who knew me, but I quickly learned he spoke absolutely no English. The area Johncy lived in, Ragigudda, was being re-developed into middle class apartments. I didn’t know where she would be living a year from now. Even with all these telephone numbers, when I returned to India, I might not be able to find her again.

I was busy with my project, and I was unsure of whether I should just drop in on them again, as it was a long trip for me to where Johncy lived. We hadn’t arranged an exact time, and I couldn’t be certain she would be there when I went. I decided to wait until the grandmother picked up the phone before I visited them. Unfortunately, I never got an answer and time flew by: I went on a trip to Mumbai, I got sick and couldn’t get out of bed for a week, and then the dialogues started rapidly and all my time was taken up coordinating the meetings and trying to develop the program. Before I knew it, I had a less than a week before I was leaving India, I still had a lot of work ahead of me and almost no free time. But on the last Sunday, I happened to be near Ragigudda and decided to take a detour and just stop by. Of course I got completely lost again, and was helped by a couple of very sweet teenagers who led me right to Johncy’s door.

This time when Johncy stepped out, she did not look happy to see me. She asked me, slightly accusingly, “Why didn’t you come that week to see me??” I had to explain to her how hard it was for me to get to where she lived, especially when we couldn’t arrange to meet beforehand and I would be dropping in on them unannounced. This started a few minutes of trying to call her grandmother’s phone to verify what I was saying, finding her grandmother to see why she didn’t pick up her cell phone, and then coming back to me to say, “Ok next time, call at 8am.”

I had to tell her I was leaving the country in a few days, and wouldn’t be able to see them again before I left. I also told her that since the Ragigudda slum was being torn down, once she moved away, if I couldn’t contact her by phone, even I came back to India I might not be able to find her again. We discussed various options, and I kept on asking if it was possible for her to get an email address at her school, or to use a friend’s computer. She shook her head no, that was not going to happen. Finally I asked about her cousin Emily, who last time had loved to constantly talk to me in Kannada even though I couldn’t understand a word she was saying or reply to her. It turned out she and her sister, Stella, were living in Koramangala, the same area that Brinda’s organization, Global Concerns India, worked out of, and an area I knew very well. Johncy had me call them, and Stella asked excitedly in English when they could meet me. We arranged for the next day since there would be a dialogue group running in Koramangala.

Not knowing what would come of my visit with Stella and Emily, I said good-bye to Johncy, unsure of whether we would be able to keep in touch. At the last minute, I took out a pen and paper and wrote down my phone number in Vancouver and my email.

I looked at her and said, “Don’t lose this piece of paper. This is my phone number in Canada, and it may change. But my email address, this will never change, I will always have this.”

Johncy started again, shaking her head,  “Jennifer, I don’t have a computer…”

But I interrupted her, “Johncy, you will always be able to reach me at this email. If you get older, and you can use a computer, you can write to me here. When you are TWENTY, and you learn how to use email, you can write to me and I will get it. Ok?”

Her eyes grew wide when I said that, and she finally stopped protesting and took the piece of paper. “Ok,” she said, nodding in agreement and smiling.

I put my pen back in my bag and noticed the freshly-baked cookies I had picked up from a local bakery for some friends. I hadn’t been expecting to see Johncy that day, and I impulsively took out the cookies in the cellophane bag wrapped up with ribbons and gave them to her. It almost seemed like I had bought them for her. Then I started looking in my bag for anything else I could give her, and she laughed as I pushed 5 or 6 pens into her hands.

I knew she was getting extra tutoring, and I wondered whether she would stay in school and get the encouragement and motivation she needed to excel as she got older. She was also the most dark-skinned out of all of her cousins, and I worried that whatever negative messages get slowly fed into the minds of dark-skinned girls in India would eventually begin to take its toll on her sense of self.

“You are so confident,” I told her, shaking my head in amazement. I wondered when I came back next time, if her personality and confidence would only have grown, or if the chaos and difficulty of life in the slums would shrink her spirit. I made her read out every single letter and number I had written on the paper, and then waved bye to her as I stepped into the auto.

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