The changing tide: How Saraswathy Ganapathy showed Karnataka village women the way to self-reliance

A doctor by profession, Saraswathy Ganapathy, 69, has changed the lives of women from villages in Karnataka, showing them the way to self-reliance and, most of all, self-belief...discovers Sanskrity Sinha...

Bespectacled, wearing a simple block-printed sari, Dr Saraswathy Ganapathy looks delightfully genial. Her voice reaches out and her eyes make an instant connection. It’s easy to understand what helped her walk the lanes of browbeaten villages in Karnataka’s Kanak¬pura district with her team from The Belaku Trust and make inroads with deprived natives. Ganapathy established the Trust to empower and rebuild the lives of women in the region. At their modest office in J P Nagar in Ben¬galuru, Ganapathy sits with papers and files piled up on her table. “If you want a picture of me at this table, you will have to blur the foreground,” she says, smiling instantly. She claims she is not as good at posing for camera like her celebrity husband Girish Karnad who, she says, can smile all day long. But then, she is innately a cheerful person, with maternal warmth—indeed, she is a mother not just to her two children but to the women of Kanakpura.

By training, Ganapathy is a paediatrician but she never went into practice. “My parents were physicians and I automatically drifted towards the profession; also because in those days one didn’t need to pull strings to get into medical colleges. If you were good, you got in; if not, you were thrown out. Medicine was exciting.” Despite the “excitement”, something kept Ganapathy from practice. “I did intensive care in paediatrics in the US. I had no intention to stay in the US but ended up living there for 15 long years from 1966-81….” she pauses for a moment and continues. “We had to spend a fortune to keep a small premature baby weighing 2 pounds alive, only to discover later that he was blind, deaf and suffered from brain dysfunction.” Such experiences would often make her ask herself: “Have you really done anything?” Back in India, she says, it was crazy to see normal, healthy babies dying just because the mother didn’t have a clean blade to cut the cord. “Gradually, I started feeling that wasn’t the way I wanted to go; finally, my husband proposed to me and I decided I would come home,” she says with a mischievous smile, followed by a quick statement, “That’s all I am going to say about ‘him’, by the way.”

Ganapathy’s playful side is tangible as she speaks—minimally, of course—about her hus¬band. “When I phone some ministers, I go as ‘Dr Ganapathy’ and often can’t get them to talk to me. As soon as I say I am ‘Mrs Karnad’, I’m welcomed with banni, banni, banni [welcome in Kannada],” she says laughing. “That’s fine with me. He is our chief trustee and it helps us.” And although Ganapathy acknowledges her husband is a “terrific playwright”, her identity is evidently her own—a woman in her own right. “I always felt women are superior,” adds the 69 year-old.

Shortly after returning from the US, Ganapathy formed a group and started a small health research project in the villages of Kanakpura. “During our research, we came across a house which was one of the poorest setups I have ever seen,” she recounts. “The husband had tuberculosis, the wife’s eyes were pale as she was severely anaemic and their eight month-old baby was all skin and bones because of malnourishment. At that point, we were very new in the area as we had only been doing research. Helping them monetarily was out of the question because they would have gone broke again in a few days. We asked the woman what she needed to earn a living and she instantly told us she wanted a sheep. We were surprised why she didn’t ask for a chicken or a goat. She replied, ‘A goat has to be taken to the forest…I don’t have the energy. Chick¬ens get sick and need more space. I can tie a sheep outside my home, I can feed it grass and if I can get a pregnant one, I can sell the lamb right away’.”

So they bought a sheep for her; and within a year, she had seven! She also started taking care of other villagers’ sheep and earning substantially to lead a decent life. “That made me believe that these people know what they need, but they don’t have the means,” observes Ganapathy. “That’s why I’m annoyed with our government schemes.” While working on public health in villages, Ganapathy had several other revelations about social issues that had an indirect impact on women’s health. One such issue was child marriage. “We spent some three to four years in Kanakpura; we knew the women and the villagers and they knew us. We felt there was need for interven¬tion.” But challenges lay ahead. “We realised that owing to the cultural and social beliefs of these people, it would be very difficult to bring in a change overnight,” she explains.

With a few other likeminded people, Ganapathy formed The Belaku Trust in 1995. The Trust offers opportunities to village women by engaging them in the making of recycled paper products, block-printed materi¬als such as scarves, and by training them in embroidery skills, to enable them to become self-reliant. The Trust works with various women’s groups, income-generation groups, women from the community they have trained to work with health awareness project teams, and youngsters.

The scope of the Trust’s activities, over the years, has provided its participants valuable life experiences and also translated into much contemporary lore. Ganapathy recalls an incident when one of the women in the group complained about her husband forcing their 16 year-old daughter into marriage. “Though there are reasons for this—the villagers feel the girls are vulnerable to sexual crimes and are safe only if married—we called up the groom’s family and said it was illegal to marry a girl who was below 18 years of age. We told them to call off the wedding or face police action. It was quite dramatic but eventually the wedding was called off. What’s remarkable is that, with the support of Belaku Trust, this woman had the courage to stand up to the elders in her family, her own husband and the village to support her daughter and save her from a forceful marriage.”

Women and villagers fondly call Ganapathy “Saras Madam” and look up to her as a pillar of support. Baneen Karachiwala, who has worked with the Trust for six years, says, “Dr Ganapa¬thy is more like a teacher and mentor. You can go to her with any problem and you won’t find anyone more encouraging and supportive.” The Trust also has volunteers belonging to other nationalities involved in its various projects. Viktoria Baskin from Australia, who has been interning at the Trust since September 2011, says, “It’s inspiring to see Dr Ganapathy at work. She is very sharp and not afraid of anyone.”

With minimal financial support from local government, Belaku Trust is mostly dependent on individual donations. “We are not here to make revolutionaries out of these women,” says Ganapathy. “We intend to create a pool that can recognise its own problems and look within itself for solutions and decisions. Our plan is to ideally make ourselves redundant. We would like to provide these women access to resources through which they can make that change happen.”

The road to empowerment is never an easy one. Over the past 17 years, Ganapathy has fought many battles—caste, ritual, cultural, gender. The Trust came to know of a village where female foeticide and female infanticide were the norm. “In one case, we interfered, took the infant to an orphanage and she was adopted. She is a beautiful little girl today,” shares Ganapathy with a sigh of relief. Women from tribal villages, widows, abandoned women, landless and unlettered women have all benefitted from the Trust. In return, the good doctor has learnt more than she has taught. To bring a change in society, a change in attitude is a must, she believes. She has witnessed this not only in the women but the men too.

“All men are not bad, all of them don’t victim¬ise women, but their upbringing makes them the way they are,” she reasons. “After a certain age, you can’t change that outlook. We have worked with young men from high schools and colleges and tried to talk to them about some of these issues but it’s astonishing how early those attitudes are set. That’s discouraging. We have been thinking of involving men at all levels. A lot of youngsters do respond, but the response is very slow. I think the success will come only when they see real changes around them.”

Despite the many disappointments encoun¬tered on the way, the success stories point to a bright future. “It’s important even if you get one woman who is willing to change and do something differently,” Ganapathy emphasises. ”She may not have the money to do it; the men and elders in her family may not let her do it; but when you show them that small win¬dow of opportunity, they sort their lives out.” The Trust also provides scholarship for girls from poor families and financial aid for families with serious medical problems. “Sometimes young girls come, get married and go away, but through our training programmes they take a skill with them, particularly embroidery, that they can use somewhere else.”

One notable success story is Kodahalli village; an awareness campaign by the Trust about alcoholism and related domestic violence boosted the will power of the women who managed to make the entire village liquor-free. “Today, women have much more self-confidence,” asserts Ganapathy. “They are now willing to travel, take decisions to keep their business going and tell their families what they want. Education has begun to make an impact in some areas to some extent. But I would like to see much more happening.”

—Sanskrity Sinha

Featured in Harmony - Celebrate Age Magazine June 2012


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