India, simply, does not work. It is not cohesive; it is not uniform. There are few regulations and even less reinforcement. The people live by ancient, backwards social norms and customs. In this mess of a country, non-governmental organizations are the beacons of hope. The people rely on these NGOs — not the government — for personal assistance or to create change in the community. Jamkhed is one of the longest-standing and most effective non-governmental organizations in the world. It is located in rural Maharashtra, and this past weekend, I had the opportunity to visit it.
Jamkhed was founded in 1970 by a doctor couple who were disappointed by India’s continuing health problems and extreme gender inequality. They created the Comprehensive Rural Health Project, a model so successful it has been replicated all over the world. They put the power and responsibility into the hands of the local villagers by teaching sustainable health techniques. Each village nominates a village health worker, a woman who primarily assists in births. Jamkhed also forms Farmer’s Clubs to teach sustainable agriculture; self-help groups, which allow women to control some finances; and classes for adolescents that advocate health, gender equity and the joys of puberty.
The institution begins with health techniques, but “Health is merely a doorway to talk about other issues like gender and caste equity,” as the woman in charge of international affairs told us. Giving a woman the position of the village health worker immediately elevates her to a higher status. She sets an example for the other women in the village, demonstrating the power possible for women. When she decreases the infant mortality rate from 170 to 25 per thousand, even the men begin to respect her.
This model has worked wonders. In project villages that follow the CRHP model, diseases like tuberculosis, leprosy, and pneumonia drop to almost nil. The average marrying age of young girls rises from 12 to 17. This is radical, giving girls another five years of school and an additional five years to mentally and physically prepare for having children. Some farmers now have their own biodiesel systems installed, fermenting cow dung into fertilizer. The methane gas excreted as a byproduct is pumped directly into the kitchen, where the women use it for cooking. They have worked wonders.
A year ago, I was pacing my room after reading the news. People were activating — occupy the world! I was stuck in my dorm, trapped at school, when I could be protesting, lobbying, volunteering, doing real things. It was extremely frustrating. Experiencing India has greatly relieved this antsy itch. My weekend at Jamkhed was an extremely inspiring experience. Never before have I seen first-hand such deprivation, and in response, such earnest help. In a dysfunctional nation, the aid provided by NGOs such as Jamkhed affects not only the lives of those they help, but those of the helpers as well.