In the press
UNVs help the women of Orissa rebuild their lives
by Anita Katyal*
03 June 2000
Orissa, India: The state of Orissa in eastern India was devastated by a cyclone on 29 October 1999. High-velocity winds accompanied by massive tidal waves left behind a trail of destruction and human misery. A total of 19,000 villages were fully or partially destroyed, affecting an estimated 13 million people. The official death toll is just under 10,000 while thousands of cattle have been killed and thousands of hectares of land destroyed.
Six months have elapsed since that fateful night. Efforts have been in full swing to help the affected people of Orissa first through immediate relief measures and later through long-term rehabilitation schemes. Several agencies under the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in New Delhi have come together here to work jointly towards helping the victims. The UN's mission in Orissa, however, could not have been such a success were it not for the efforts of the 13 national United Nations Volunteers (NUNVs).
Seven women UNVs have proved particularly invaluable in these efforts. Now that attention is focused on rehabilitation for victims, the UNV district support officers as they have been designated, are concentrating on how they can help the women most affected in the natural disaster.
Abha Mishra of India joined as a UNV in December and has since served in the Balasore district. With the flood waters rising to over nine feet and entire villages submerged, her first task was to document the extent of damage, monitor the movement of relief materials and assess conditions in the field. "I toured the affected villages extensively, spoke to the villagers, the village headmen, the local authorities and especially the women to find out their problems," she explains.
In addition, she was also asked to pitch in with the United Nations Children's Fund's ongoing rural water and sanitation programme that was expanded after the cyclone ravaged the district. "This involved long conversations with the women as I tried to explain to them the benefits of proper sanitation and hygiene," says Abha.
"The women were remarkably enthusiastic and assured me that they would pay greater attention to their personal hygiene and would not hesitate to fetch water even if they have to walk a kilometre." The women were motivated enough to set up mahila mandals (women's groups) to educate the other women. Like her counterparts, Abha has drawn up elaborate plans to organize the women in remote villages into self-help groups and is currently in the process of putting them in place. At the same time, she has also held regular meetings with the community workers in the affected villages. These community workers, or anganwadi workers as they are referred to, provide basic services like nutrition and immunization for children and neonatal care to pregnant mothers at the government-run community centres. Most of these centres were destroyed in the cyclone but they have started functioning in temporary tent structures.
"I am motivating the anganwadi workers to organize the village women into self-help groups. After all, we are here for a short time and it will be difficult for us to follow up on these activities. Therefore, I am involving the local NGOs and anganwadi workers since they will be here even after we leave," says Abha.
Sandhaya, a 27-year-old anganwadi worker in Talanagar, recalls when Abha first came to their village. "She told us how these groups would help the women in sharing their problems and also told us how we could set up a thrift fund and start some income-generating schemes," she says. More importantly, she adds, Abha's visit helped them air their grievances. For instance, she says, the foodgrains at their anganwadi centre were badly damaged and they brought this to Abha's attention who, in turn, asked the local authorities to take immediate remedial measures. "When Abha came to our village and discussed our problems, we felt that finally our grievances would be relayed to the right quarters," she says.
Radhamani Singh, who supervises 48 anganwadi centres under her charge, says the sessions with Abha proved extremely helpful. The workers told how they are working in makeshift structures with virtually non-existent infrastructure. Abha listened attentively, gave them useful tips on checking malnutrition and keeping track of the health of women in general. "After this meeting, the anganwadi workers felt more confident and more capable of handling all the problems thrown up in the post-cyclone period," says Radhamani.
Talking to outsiders who are not part of the official machinery also helps, she explains. When a government official comes, people are generally hesitant to talk because they run the risk of annoying somebody. "But with UNVs, there are no such problems and so it is easy to talk. It is also good to know that somebody is genuinely interested in our problems and will do something about them, " she adds.
UNV Rita Missal, located in the Cuttack district, has managed to get the women in Nodaarisol village to discard their veils and became active participants in the development plans of their village. "Women in this village are traditionally not supposed to step out of their homes but after several meetings with them, I have persuaded them to sit on the village committee where decisions are taken about the future rehabilitation plans of the village," she says.
Similarly, women's participation in reconstruction work was nil but here again, she convinced them that their participation will mean extra income for the family. The women have also constituted a mahila mandal, or a self-help group, which has not only set up a thrift fund but has become involved in such diverse activities as distribution of relief materials to the monitoring of sanitation and immunization programmes.
Kalika Mohapatra, who is responsible for the Khurda district, has been working as a UNV since December - weeks after the cyclone hit Orissa. She remembers her initial visits to the villages when people were living under hastily-erected tents and tarpaulins, eating from community kitchens and fighting for the relief materials being distributed.
Since the crops were severely damaged by the cyclone and it would be some time before agricultural activity could be resumed, Kalika helped the women set up groups to explore income-generating activities.
"After several discussion sessions, the women became gradually receptive to forming self-help groups when they realized that they could also contribute to the family income," says Kalika. "A lot of them showed interest in starting kitchen gardens which would provide them a steady income. In fact, we found that after several such group discussions, the women became more vocal and confident and voluntarily discussed their problems... they became more aware of their difficulties but also realized they could also contribute in making a difference," she says, adding that they also started seeking information about immunization programmes and how they could keep their communities clean.
As part of their mandate, UNVs also coordinate the activities of NGOs working in the field and help them in the implementation of their programmes. Soon after she joined, Kalika says she was approached by a local NGO, Childcare, which works in a group of villages, about 35 kilometres from Orissa's capital Bhubaneswar. The villages, she says, were destroyed during the cyclone and its inhabitants had, by some mistake, been overlooked in the relief and rehabilitation programmes launched by the government.
Childcare, she says, had already been working in these villages and after the cyclone the people were keen to expand their activities. However, funding was proving to be a problem as they came up against a wall each time they tried seeking resources. Kalika says she approached a governmental funding agency which gives money for rural programmes and also got in touch with an Italian NGO, CESUI, which had evinced interest in undertaking a worthwhile programme for the victims.
Gradually, these efforts paid off as an integrated development programme has been put in place in the village of Bhalunka. A non-formal centre for children has been set up which is proving quite a relief to the women who can now leave their children there knowing they will not be wandering around aimlessly in the fields and will instead be looked after.
At the same time, the women themselves, who earlier earned a pittance working as casual labourers, have been given special training in mushroom cultivation.
"We had lost everything in the cyclone but we are now trying to rebuild our lives. Learning mushroom cultivation has really helped me in this process....earlier I did not earn more than Rs. 35 a day and then, again, work was not regular. Today, my income has nearly doubled," says Urmilla Singh, 30. Urmilla is among 20 women from the village who have received this training. "Earlier, there was never enough money to meet the needs of the family. Today, with this additional income, I am able to look after my four sons a little better," says 28-year-old Gauri Singh, who is also getting health services that were earlier not available to her. Gautmi Singh says she now enjoys a increased, regular income and better working conditions. "Besides, we have more time to look after our families," she explains. The women have organized a group that meets once a month to discuss their common problems and also established a thrift fund to be used for emergency purposes, explains group secretary Gautmi Singh.
*Anita Katyal is a journalist based in New Delhi.
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