In Rural Communities, Young Women Drive Generational Change

Four months ago, I found myself in India as a member of a U.S.-based non-profit called Freedom From Hunger, which partners with Johnson & Johnson and local organizations throughout rural Africa, Asia and Latin America to help poor women stay healthy through microfinance and education. I was there visiting with the clients and staff of one of our partner organizations, a microfinance institution called Bandhan. It was not the first time I had made this kind of visit, so I came fully prepared to see and hear about how our program impacts the lives of the women that we serve. I have witnessed the pride with which they speak of being able to ensure their families have enough to eat and that their children -- especially girls -- can attend and stay in school, how they understand more about staying healthy, and how their voices are being increasingly heard in their homes and communities.

What I was not prepared for was the remarkable sense of empowerment and deep commitment to service that I witnessed from the heroes who help lay that foundation for their clients: the female staff members of Bandhan. They are young, single, college-educated women. In many cases, they, too, have risen from poverty. In other cases, they simply realize their fortune in life and are committed to providing a helping hand to others.

"When I stayed at home -- even when in school and college -- my vision and perspective was limited," a young female staffer named Ashima told me. "After joining this work I have learned and gained many experiences and I feel useful. I'm happy I'm making a difference." Ashima, who was working as a trainer for community health workers at Bandhan, was little more than 25 years old and only six years into her career in rural India. By contrast, I am an American woman over 50, well-established in the international development field. And yet Ashima's words gave voice to an emotion familiar to me: how profoundly grateful I am for the opportunity to pursue a career which enables me to contribute to change for the better.

This commitment by Ashima and her colleagues comes at a stiff price. They work in distant, hard-to-reach communities. They live in staff quarters far from their own homes and families. They work six days a week, riding bicycles daily to see the women who participate in the health and microfinance program yet visit their own families for only one day once or twice a month.

It's a hard life, yet they beam with gratitude as they describe to me how they helped prevent a poor farmer from losing his arm to gangrene or helped a woman save her daughter who was dying from malnutrition. Their faces grow animated as they describe how unhappy their parents were with their career choice but how, when they witnessed the ways in which their daughters were blooming and growing from the responsibilities and impact of their work, their fear and unhappiness transformed to pride and appreciation.

These committed women derive satisfaction and pride from helping other women to shape a better future for their children. Yet every one of these amazing young women also envisions a future married and with a family of her own. Wistfully, they admit that eventually it will likely be necessary to leave this demanding yet deeply satisfying work behind.

They have gratitude too, that the seeds of their work will continue to bloom in the garden of the next generation. Armed with the understanding of sound health practices, they will continue to share what they know with others. They will pass on the knowledge and value of service to their own children. Therein lies the hope and power of generational change.

Visit www.freedomfromhunger.org to learn more about empowering women with the means to effect generational change, and how you can help them do it.

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