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By Colleen Hutchison 

An African proverb says, “If you educate a man, you educate an individual. But if you educate a woman, you educate a nation.” In India, two organizations supported by Canadian Jesuits International (CJI) are advancing gender equality and transforming communities by investing in their women. 

But many women — especially in the country’s low socio-economic classes and those who work in the tea gardens — continue to face gender discrimination, sexual violence, and low literacy rates.

Hayden Hall Institute and the Human Life Development and Research Centre (HLDRC) serve the most vulnerable members of India’s Darjeeling district. Known for its scenic beauty and tea plantations, Darjeeling — like many areas of India — has made significant progress in women’s rights, including in education, civic life, and health care.  

Sashi Rai, Hayden Hall Community Development Worker, checks the blood pressure of an elderly woman at Dabai Pani, Darjeeling, India. Credit: Hayden Hall.

But many women — especially in the country’s low socio-economic classes and those who work in the tea gardens — continue to face gender discrimination, sexual violence, and low literacy rates. Hayden Hall and HLDCR work with women who live below the poverty line and work as daily labourers. They are often uneducated and financially unstable. 

Julie Rai weaves a bag at Hayden Hall. Credit: Hayden Hall.

Hayden Hall’s philosophy is to help women help themselves economically, knowing that self-empowerment will positively impact their children and families. Working under an integrated community development model, Hayden Hall’s flagship program is its mother and child health care services. The program assists mothers from marginalized communities with children under age 5 by helping them identify government services such as free medical care and school tuition support. The women also learn health, hygiene, and nutrition practices to promote their children’s physical and cognitive development.  

Community Development Workers (CDWs) are critical to Hayden Hall’s healthcare services. The 65 CDWs support more than 2,000 mothers in Darjeeling. They operate a dispensary, distribute food, build women-led self-help groups, link communities to government services, and provide direct health services at Hayden Hall’s clinics and through home visits. 

Hayden Hall also has a livelihoods and income generation program that teaches women skills such as sewing and stitching. Many of the women who complete the training are then employed by Hayden Hall to make handicrafts sold in the local community. 

“I have been very fortunate to work with Hayden Hall,” says Kanchan, who was trained by the program and has worked for Hayden Hall for 21 years.  

“I have learned more than just weaving and stitching — Hayden Hall has taught me to become a better human altogether, and I continue to learn on the daily with the group of women who have become a family.” 

Similar to Hayden Hall’s efforts, HLDRC provides education and employment programs, self-help groups, advocacy training, and more to women who work in the tea gardens of Darjeeling and other regions. Reaching 5,000 people, HLDRC’s mission is to empower people and build self-reliant communities through capacity strengthening, legal aid, and social development initiatives.  

Women undergoing leadership training (pre-COVID-19). Credit: HLDRC

HLDRC works hand in hand with another project supported by CJI, Lok Manch or “people’s forum.” It is a national platform for promoting the dignity and well-being of marginalized people in India through policy interventions and improved access to their legal rights. Lok Manch trains community members to be organizers and leaders — 50% of whom are women. 

Similar to Hayden Hall’s efforts, HLDRC provides education and employment programs, self-help groups, advocacy training, and more to women who work in the tea gardens of Darjeeling and other regions.

Working together to use their collective voice and advocate for their rights and needs, they have worked on issues including food rations, land entitlements, water supply, and fair wages for tea plantation labourers. 

HLDRC’s 54 self-help groups empower women to become financially stable and independent. Each group functions as a micro credit union. Members make small monthly contributions to create a larger pool of capital that they can access in times of financial need. The groups help members become more adept at financial management and introduce them to financial institutions and government services. Many members take out loans to start small businesses, improving their family’s welfare and their community. 

Christina Soren joined a self-help group in 2017. She took out a loan from the group to start a tailoring shop which gradually expanded to include a photocopying service, stationery items, mobile phones, and other goods. Christina now supports her household with income from the shop. 

“All these initiatives are helping many women learn to be self-reliant,” shares Nishita Lakra, HLDRC’s self-help group coordinator.  

“Self-help group members are empowered to access loans from banks, and women are using these means to overcome their difficulties.” 

A community workshop to promote access to legal rights and protection mechanisms (pre-COVID-19). Credit: HLDRC

“Especially in the Darjeeling hills, women have been rising up and empowering themselves,” says Prerna, a community development worker who has worked at Hayden Hall for 16 years. “Men too have been very supportive in creating equality as all have realized that to bring a change in society, development of both women and men are equally important. We still have a lot of steps to climb in the ladder of development, but I am glad that we have at least started the change.” 

Gender equality has improved over the last few decades. More girls attend school, fewer girls are forced into child marriages, and popular movements draw attention to sexism, sexual harassment, and other problems experienced by women and girls. Still more needs to be done to make lasting societal change and to ensure the dignity of every girl and woman is respected. In India, Hayden Hall and the HLDRC are helping to change the landscape for gender equality one woman at a time. 

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