A few weeks ago I was fortunate enough to accompany Aloka Mitra (Founder and Chairperson of Women's Interlink Foundation) on a 3 day trip to Jalpaiguri, India to meet with officials in the area to discuss future Made By Survivors projects and to see the site for our next jewelry center. We are extremely excited to announce that LUSH Cosmetics has provided Made By Survivors with a grant (details coming soon) to help open what will be our third jewelry training and production center in India located in Jalpaiguri, a rural area in northern West Bengal.
We are honored to once again partner with Women's Interlink Foundation (WIF) and based on the success of our first partnership at Child Care Home, we are very excited to see what comes next.
Jalpaiguri is located south of the Himalayas, and is watered by innumerable rivers and rivulets rising from and flowing down those most majestic of mountains. On a clear sunny day, Mount Kanchenjunga is visible from the town which lies on the banks of the Teesta River, the second largest river in West Bengal after the Ganga. 71% of the land consists of untouched jungle that's home to dozens of untouched tribes that have called the area home for untold generations. It's a beautiful area that one could also consider paradise - that is as long as you don't have to live there.
The economy of the town is centered around the tea industry which is an industry rife with trafficking and forced labor. An astonishing 21% of the land in the entire area is dedicated to tea gardens which pay the average worker around 60 rupees per day (about $1.33). Since the industry is the largest employer in the area and pretty much the only option for those without an education, it has an inexhaustible supply of cheap and replaceable labor. Despite the massive profits generated by the tea industry in Jalpaiguri, 91% of people in the area live below the poverty line which makes them very susceptible to exploitation. When you want to know the root cause of why most people are exploited it comes down to two things: lack of education and lack of economic alternatives. If you give people a proper education and teach them skills they can use to earn a living then they will be less susceptible to exploitation. This is the basis of the work that WIF is conducting in the area and the main reason they make such a great partner for Made By Survivors.
Aloka and I, along with some of her staff, attended a workshop on our first day to help provide sensitivity training to local police officers and NGO staff so they can better deal with woman and girls that need their help. It was a very interesting meeting to witness as I watched Aloka, a young 71 year old ball of energy and passion, completely command the room including some high level police and government officials. They all went out of there way to show Aloka respect and give her the time and attention she needed to get her point across and more importantly they actually listened. They eagerly took notes and asked great questions that gave me the hope they were "getting it" and would at least try to help. Small steps as they say....
After the conference was over we headed out to visit the shelter homes that WIF manages and meet the girls that will eventually be in the Made By Survivors program. WIF has operated 3 Nijoloy ("Our Home") shelter homes in Jalpaiguri for several years now. The girls housed there come from various backgrounds including being abandoned by their parents, trafficked from Nepal or Bhutan to work in the tea gardens, or being in need of special assistance. Each of the girls in the care of WIF are taken care of and provided with an education and eventually an opportunity to be a part of a skills training program. It's certainly not an easy job. While I was at one of the shelter homes I met with a man that's the only doctor for the entire area. That's one doctor for about 100,000 people and to make matters worse he's not trained in gynecology. The challenges are immense and support still needed. Small steps they say....
As always the first thing that struck me when I met the girls was how vibrant and happy they were. These were not girls that needed pity or sympathy (they rarely are) and instead were people dealing with their past the best way they could while at the same time looking forward to the future. Even the simple gesture of Aloka bringing each girl a chocolate bar caused a mini frenzy of giddiness and joy. It was a pleasure to watch them all line up in front of Aloka, herself seated at the head of the room in a beautiful sari looking regal and grandmotherly at the same time, and take their turn talking to her and hugging her and singing for her and getting her advice on problems. Aloka is at her best in these moments and I would argue also at her most happiest and I'm humbled to be able to share them with her.
At the end of this very long day, at a point when I was so hungry and so tired I couldn't even muster the energy to complain about how hungry I was, Aloka informs me that we were heading to see the space for the next Nijoloy home and where the Made By Survivors jewelry center will be housed until the main building is built. The time is 11:00pm. We had been going since 8am. We had eaten one meal....and a chocolate bar. I was exhausted. I was starving and I was in need of a shower. Aloka however...Aloka was still going full throttle and still rocking her sari, perfect makeup and hair and looking like she had just stepped out of a Bollywood film. After about an hour of touring the new site and negotiating the rent Aloka makes a deal and starts plans on what will be her fourth shelter home in the area. I forget how tired I am as I start to map out the jewelry studio and envision what it will look like when it's all up and running.
Finally, a little after midnight we sit down for dinner and my body starts to shut down. However as I think about all that we accomplished that day I understand it was worth it. It feels good to be that exhausted because you got a lot done and it prepares me for the next day. Rise and shine at 7am...oh boy.
After dragging myself out of bed early the next morning and hooking an IV of coffee up to me, I start to get excited for the day. Aloka comes out of her room still looking like the Queen of India and we eat our breakfast and get on our way. The first part of the day is spent touring land for the future site of the center that the Made By Survivors jewelry program will be permanently located. All of the spaces are located in very rural areas and surrounded by villages and pastures. I get the opportunity to meet and speak with several villagers and see some incredible natural beauty. We were even lucky enough to spot two elephants in wild grazing. It was an incredible sight and one I'm told that is very common in the area.
With our site visits complete we make our way to the Government center of Jalpaiguri to meet with the Block Development Officer and discuss ideas for future projects involving the villages that are scattered deep throughout the jungle. The gentleman that we met is very pleasant and sits with us for some time discussing solutions to the many challenges faced by the people of the area. He tells us his priorities are Education of Children, Healthcare, Social Services, Tourism Development and Clean Drinking Water. We talk about different ways WIF and Made By Survivors can help in those areas and I came away feeling very confident that we will be able to develop some effective and sustainable projects in the area. We are currently working on what that looks like and will get the details out as soon as we can. However, it goes without saying though that we have some very exciting ideas and a lot of passionate, dedicated people to help implement them.
After a long but very productive few days we headed back to the train station for our journey home to Kolkata. I came away with a much better understanding of the challenges people face and how to help them in a way that's sustainable and productive. I also realized that I had spent 3 days in the presence of some incredible people that have dedicated their lives to improving others. Aloka and her staff more then impressed me, they showed me what true dedication looks like and that with hard work, determination and the support of like minded people, you actually can get a lot done in India. =)
To see pictures from the trip please visit our Facebook page and take a look at the album https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10150313963304004.363972.152511494003&type=3