At a self-help group meeting at the Cheruvadu village’s community hall, about a 15-minute drive from Marayoor, Sister Femily discusses microcredit with a group of 20 or so women. The majority of men in the community have drinking problems, Sister Femily says, and so women have started to do what they can to improve their family’s lot. After completing a three-month tailoring course with Sister Femily, Balamani Thankapan, 40, borrowed 10,000 rupees (about $150) on microcredit from the self-help group to buy a manual sewing machine. “I buy material and make clothes for me and my boy, Jayatheesh, who is 13,” she says. Soon, she began making clothes for others and before long Mrs. Thankapan was doing a brisk trade in shirts, earning $1.50 in profit on each shirt sold. Her earnings proved sufficient to underwrite a new, comparably sized loan to open a shop. This has provided Mrs. Thankapan with crucial economic independence; her husband, an alcoholic, routinely drank away the family’s income, leaving his wife and son with little on which to survive and subjecting them to physical abuse in times of stress. Mrs. Thankapan now earns 1,000 rupees ($15) a month thanks to profit from her store, shirt business and sewing classes she gives. With that money, she is able to feed her son properly and send him to school. Sister Femily has implemented the same self-help model in other places and in other contexts. In Marayoor, next to her convent, groups of schoolgirls study nightly around the shared light of a solar lamp. At these self-help study groups, initiated by Sister Femily, the girls aid each other with homework and encourage each other to study — an expression of
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academic support often absent at home. Such interventions targeting the state’s at-risk children have a goal beyond immediate protection and assistance; in the longer term, they aim to break the cycles of addiction and abuse that have plagued the state for decades. Underpinning this work is a belief in the “snowball effect” — that each child educated represents a future parent who believes in education; that each child spared the experience of parental alcoholism and domestic abuse will not grow up to abuse alcohol or women; that each empowered mother will lead to an empowered daughter; and that through this process of gradual, incremental improvement, Kerala will slowly leave behind those societal dysfunctions of which children are the ultimate victims. Mrs. Thankapan is one of those empowered mothers — and she sees her young son finally facing a future far better than she could have once imagined.
“My son is now studying at St. Mary’s School, run by the sisters,” she says with a broad smile. “After he finishes there, I want him to do a three-year degree in university, and then he could get a job as a policeman.” A regular contributor to ONE, Don Duncan has covered the Middle East and Africa for The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The New York Times and Agence France Presse. DON DUNCAN HAS MORE ABOUT HIS VISIT TO INDIA ON OUR BLOG, ONE-TO-ONE:
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cnewablog.org/web/ inindia AND FOR A PERSONAL GLIMPSE AT LIFE IN INDIA, CHECK OUT HIS VIDEO:
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