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Lighting up a beaten path

DIVYA SREEDHARAN

Dr. Saraswathy Ganapathy helps women rebuild their lives with dignity. Through the Belaku Trust she founded, villages are being transformed by way of healthcare, academic and vocational projects.


A 16-year-old girl in Kanakpura taluk wants to go to college. But her father has fixed her marriage to a man twice her age. Will her mother support her or stay silent? Ask Dr. Saraswathy Ganapathy.

The answer, says Dr. Saraswathy, lies in whether the mother has some means of earning money on her own, and on whether she has a woman backing her.

That knowledge hasn't come easy to either Rangamma*, who fought to send 16-year-old Suma* to college, or Dr. Saraswathy, a pediatrician-turned-public-health-professional whose Belaku Trust helped Rangamma achieve that. It's the result of 20 years of learning how lives and livelihoods can change for women in the villages of Kanakpura, outside Bengaluru.

Integral to this transformation has been Belaku Trust that Dr. Saraswathy set up in 1995. The trust began as a body gathering/sharing information on primary healthcare, nutrition and obstetric care. Now, it also promotes income-generating schemes (IGS) for the village women. As Dr. Saraswathy puts it: “You (with your facts) must work with the women and what they know about how things work in the village. Then things change.”

The very name of the trust indicates this approach. Dr. Saraswathy's husband, celebrated littérateur and playwright Girish Karnad, who is also the chief trustee, came up with ‘belaku': “It is a Kannada word symbolising the sharing of information, illumination,” explains Dr. Saraswathy. Which is how Belaku now runs Kirana, Deepa and Ushae — three IGS involving women from various Kanakpura villages. Kirana is a recycled-paper making unit; Deepa a block-printing group and Ushae involves embroidery-making.

Practical means proactive

Rangamma is part of Ushae. When her husband, with the village elders' backing, fixed their daughter's marriage, Rangamma defied him with the support of fellow Ushae members. Now Suma is in PUC on a Belaku scholarship of Rs. 400 a year. Her father has abandoned the family. But Rangamma is confident she will manage. Without Belaku, she couldn't have.

Still Rangamma and the other women exhibit this increased confidence in different ways. For instance, after Belaku started the IGS called ‘ Kirana' (a ray of light, in Kannada), Dr. Saraswathy asked the women if their lives had changed in any way. “In unison, they exclaimed: now we take the bus to Bengaluru!” she recalls. She was aghast. Then she realised that earlier the women had to ask their husbands to take them anywhere. “Taking the bus” was thus, their short-form for increased autonomy and mobility.

Today, the women come on their own to Bengaluru and interact with foreigners. “They can't speak English but their grins say it all,” smiles Dr. Saraswathy.

All is not laughter, though. Domestic violence is rampant. Even here, it has been a learning experience for Dr. Saraswathy to see how women cope with the constant pain in their lives. Some five years ago, she asked Jayamma*, a new Kirana trainee, how things were. “To my horror, Jayamma burst into tears saying her husband beat her up and took her money.” Dr. Saraswathy immediately wanted to go the police. But Chennamma*, another Kirana member, said that would not work. Chennamma went on to tell Jayamma: “My husband used to beat me up too. One day, I said I wouldn't give him any more money. He left me then but came back three months later, shamefaced. Now, I give him money for drink but he doesn't lay a finger on me. Some day, you will be brave enough to do what I did”.

Dr. Saraswathy doesn't know if Chennamma's advice worked. But Jayamma, she says, now wears new sarees and new gold earrings!



Dr. Saraswathy Ganapathy

When she first started visiting Kanakpura in 1989-90, the village woman would simply smile shyly at what their Amma (which is what they call Dr. Saraswathy) said to them. Today, Jayamma and Chennamma are among those confident enough to share dinner with Dr. Saraswathy and her family at her Bengaluru home. Which just goes to show how much they love and respect her.

But then, everyone who works with Dr. Saraswathy holds her in high regard. For Baneen Karachiwala, who heads IGS activities at Belaku, Dr. Saraswathy is a mentor and an inspiration. “She has the interest, the foresight and the education to carry out our projects. Working with her is to learn from her at every level,” she adds.

Today Belaku works in 10 villages on a regular basis. But Dr. Saraswathy also ensures the trust is active in Kanakpura as a whole, specially in the areas of primary healthcare and nutrition. For the past five years, the trust has identified and trained village women as gelathis or “companions” to support staff at government-run anganwadis (mother and child care centres). The gelathis get a salary of Rs. 700 a month each. They devise games for the children about health food versus junk food, protecting the environment, and even gender equity. They grow kitchen gardens. “Now, senior gelathis want to train other village women themselves,” says Dr. Saraswathy proudly. That, she says, is the way to sustain the project.

There is also continuous sharing of knowledge and practices in obstetric care. In mid-February this year, midwives from the U.K. visited Kanakpura. They met traditional midwives and junior health workers to discuss everything from access to health services to the best birthing positions and practices! Belaku's IGS members benefited too as the midwives loved Kirana, Deepa and Ushae products.

Circle of change

Over the years, Dr. Saraswathy's work has gained her immense respect even from those not connected with Belaku. One admirer is Bengaluru-based Munira Sen, a veteran in creating opportunities for social entrepreneurship among local communities. “I think very highly of Belaku's projects. This is most definitely the way to promote social action and change,” Munira stresses.

Dr. Saraswathy, on her part, believes she and Belaku can do much, much more. “But we learn as we go. Now the villagers see us and them as a unit, not as separate entities,” she smiles. For her, that is reward enough.

Sixteen-year-old Suma is changing things already, in her own way. She is tutoring Jagan* a quadriplegic, Std. VIII student. Belaku paid for surgery to increase Jagan's mobility. But Dr. Saraswathy couldn't persuade him to go back to school. With Suma's help, maybe the pint-sized teenager will become less stubborn and study. That will complete the circle of change Dr. Saraswathy is trying to create.

(*Names changed on request)

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