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How did Grihini Begin?

Three events contributed to the genesis of the Grihini Program.

• The formation of a group of like-minded Indians and expatriates with a common concern for social health needs and living conditions of expatriated Tamils from Sri Lanka who were bonded labourers in the remote mountain villages around Kodaikanal.

• A donation of US$4,500.00 from Christians Linked in Mission (in St Louis) through Norman Habel provided the funds to begin whatever way these locals saw fit.

• A discovery of the work of Jessie Tellis-Nayak describing and evaluating the effectiveness of Grihini programs around India (Tellis-Nayak, 1984).

Seeking for an effective way to use the donation, the group visited a number of the Grihini non-formal education programs reviewed by Tellis-Nayak in Tamil Nadu in order to learn to what guidance they might provide.

For six months this group met regularly around a dining room table to discuss the various merits of the different models they had either visited or read about and devise a model and plan for establishing such a program in the remote hill station of Kodaikanal. They selected a target group that included those least likely to engage in any existing programs, namely: Dalits, Tribals and Tamil Repatriates from Sri Lanka. A shared educational philosophy was developed to guide the planning and the generation of a relevant curriculum that would meet the specific local needs of the poor, marginalised women of the remote villages around Kodaikanal.

Original Grihini sign

The Original Grihini Sign outside Sacred Heart College

The Philosophy or Core Values

• An important consideration was the power relations of those in the team with the communities with whom they intended to work and the women who would participate. The guiding principle was that all voices in the program were valuable and valid and would have a voice that would be heeded.

• The importance of integrating critical group and self-reflection as a means of continuous improvement and of involvement of everyone in the program development was also identified as a core strategy. This included management, teachers (animators), learners and their families.

• Animators were selected from the target communities themselves to teach the classes in literacy, nutrition, health, crafts and dance-drama and brought into the initial planning and given the necessary training before the commencement of the program including opportunities to visit existing Grihini programs. These animators were crucial in helping create a close Grihini community and needed to understand the core values to be upheld.

• Active affirmation of the diverse religious and cultural backgrounds of the program participants was also core value. While the founders of the program were from a diversity of Christian backgrounds—Catholic, Lutheran, Pentecostal—the goal was to affirm and support the spiritual heritage of each Grihini.

• Relevance to village lifestyle of the program was also considered very important so that the young women would not be wooed from the rural villages but be eager to return to their families once the basic program was completed.

• Maintenance of a sense of connectedness to their village and families was also considered important so that the families and villagers would be prepared to work for changes that would be all too evident to the women when they returned after the program was over.

• Continuance of on-going contact and support with the women beyond the initial program was deemed to be an essential component of the program to help them maintain and continue their learning, maintain their social awareness and provide support in the transition back to village and family life.

In 1987 about 30 of the poorest women between the ages of 13 and 23 were selected from the remote hills villages and brought to live in the facilities provided by Sacred Heart College. With each initial program based on the processes of on-going critical reflection and formal reviews the program evolved into a highly sought after resource for women in the remote villages.

Over time, several generations of women from the same villages and families participated in Grihini. Graduates identified strongly with the program and maintained their connections through the follow-up program. They engaged in collaborative action to form a small savings co-operative, supply two shops to sell their craft products and to run a travelling theatre troupe, called Kurunji, to educate villages about health related matters. Also, over time, graduates of the program who showed promise as leaders were employed as the new animators when needed. Other Grihini graduates also found employment as animators in other programs.

Janice Orrell
‘From cobras to Kodai’

Janice Orrell handing out diplomas at graduation

Janice Orrell handing out diplomas at graduation

While working at Kodikanal International School I became very interested in the life of those outside in the villages. I was invited to contribute to a review and development of a basic literacy program in remote villages on the plains near Dindigul. My responsibility was to mentor and work with the co-ordinator and the five field workers each of whom were managing the program in several very remote villages off of the main highways and roads. While I understood the principles of community development, change and literacy I needed help to understand strategies they would need for handling the issues that confound the running of night time literacy classes for women when they occur in conditions of extreme poverty. This meant some months of visiting the villages and sitting in classes.

To reach these villages I caught buses out of town into the countryside. After getting down from the bus in what seemed the middle of nowhere, I walked long distances down narrow dusty tracks, across rice paddies, often at night. These paddies were infested with cobras, hardly calming as I walked to villages and sat around the wells at night talking to the local men, women and children who came in from the fields before observing the classes. Then I walked back to the main roads to catch the last bus back to town. I am terrified to this day of snakes and each night after I returned home I vowed not to go out again!

Based on what I learned from these observational visits, I would then construct a training program for the village animators and model the training strategies for the field workers, grounded in Frères’ philosophy. It was the most profound education in my lifetime.

Back in Kodaikanal, I began to realise that the villages in the nearby Kodai hills also needed a literacy program—and more! The women in these villages were remote, illiterate, poor and oppressed. There was absolutely nothing for them if they missed out on the basic education that was available. They were trapped from an early age into subsistence living, accepting any wage for any work no matter how arduous, just to survive; there seemed to be no way out.

I had also had the privilege of meeting and travelling with a group of health workers, government official and Jesuits up into the remote coops where they found bonded labourers living in dreadful poverty and oppression. When these people were freed, they were angry, as they had lost their only means of employment. This was shocking, confusing and confronting

The money from the Lutherans in the USA provided a catalyst to gather a group of local educators from Kodaikanal to devise a plan to spend it. Jesse Tellis-Nayak, from the Indian Social Institute in New Delhi, had reviewed non-formal education programs for women. In her books she used the term ‘Grihini’ to designate a diverse range of non-formal education programs of women. The term ‘Grihini,’ in its broadest sense, refers to the person responsible for the management of the household. Grihini non-formal education programs are those that recognise and affirm the traditional care-giving role of women in conjunction with the reality that most women, especially poor women, must generate income for their household.

A group of us visited a number of Grihini programs in Tamil Nadu and then devised a program for poor oppressed women on the hills to study for 6 months to gain an awareness of their plight and their possibilities. The program has never had large sums of money, just enough to maintain itself. Corruption has never been an issue. The program does not have the luxury of a jeep. The women in the Dindigul program taught me that in order to be able to relate to the remote communities, it is always best to travel, dress, eat and sleep the way the villagers do. That way they trust that you might understand to some small extent the lives and problems they experience. Their struggle for survival has engendered considerable wisdom in these women, from which I have been a grateful beneficiary when I have had the sense to listen. I am still afraid of snakes. Yenaka pambuka rumba bayan! (For me, I am very afraid of snakes! My first complete Tamil sentence!)

20th Anniversary

A Grihini graduating class

A Grihini Graduating Class

In 2007, 20 years of Grihini was celebrated with the women of the remote villages in the Palni Hills. Graduates from all the villages joined us in there hundreds for the celebration. Supporters from Australia also participated.

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