For the FairFight India project, we have teamed up with AshaDiya Foundation, a local NGO that looks after women in precarious situations, mostly girls from the slums or from migrant worker families. Ashadiya, partners of the French association Act & Help, runs two projects in Varanasi - Disha House, which provides room and board, as well as access to school, a psychologist and medical care to 25 girls; and Asha project, which provides care and education to 50 youngsters of both genders. To get a better idea of the work of AshaDiya and the potential of a collaboration with FairFight, we interviewed the foundation's local coordinator, Meera
Meera was born in Uttarakhand in North India 28 years ago but followed her family to France when she was four years old. She returned to India for two years when she was 8, and moved back to France to finish her schooling in 1998. She studied film studies, languages and anthropology in Paris, and speaks French, English and Hindi fluently. She returned to India as assistant coordinator for AshaDiya last year to experience India as an adult, and became the coordinator in May. Being born in India, she was not shocked or suprised by the crazy city life of Varanasi (or Banaras, as she calls it), but in her own words: "everything is amplified in Banaras".
AshaDiya started life as a project for housing sex workers near the railway station, but this proved to be fraught with difficulties. Instead, they began to focus on girls from shanty towns and migrant workers. The aim was simple: to give food, a house, clothes and some schooling to which these girls had otherwise no access. The girls at Ashadiya are 7 - 18 years old and most are from the lower casts of the India social hierarchy. When the migrant parents return to the country-side after their work is done, the girls tend to stay at the Disha house so they can carry on with their education and be protected from exploitation (such as being made to beg) and other dangers of living in slums. The girls usually stay until they are 18 years old. Meera's wish for the girls is that they become able to make their own choices in life. She doesn't think that formal schooling is enough to achieve this, especially in India's rigid schooling system. But she does believe in a process of conscience-building, of becoming aware in one's potential as a woman, a person, and a citizen in a social whole.
About the collaboration with FairFight
Meera first heard about FairFight from two Erasmus University College student who came to volunteer as English teachers in January. AshaDiya had already begun looking for martial arts classes for their girls and thought that FairFight's mission fitted perfectly. The previous coordinator, Anne-Laure, highly valued women's empowerment, and wanted the girls to understand their own body through sport, but martial arts also gave the added benefit of developing self-defense skills.
What Meera likes most about FairFight is the focus on empowerment, beyond just martial arts. Like us, AshaDiya does not believe in imposing empowerment from above, rather seeing empowerment as a growing process of becoming aware, and journey of unlocking potential. Meera tells us that she sees a lot of women's empowerment projects that are focused on economic empowerment here, but believes that this can simply throw women into the harsh reality of the capitalist system instead of truly empowering them. Seeing the impossibility of changing the entire World, Meera particularly likes the focus of FairFight that focuses all of its capabilities on one mission.
We’re finally here: tickets at the ready, a few days away from boarding our flights to Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, where we will be launching the FairFight India project in partnership with the Ashadiya Foundation (http://ashadiya.com/ashadiya-foundation.html) and Devesh Verma from the Dragon Martial Arts Academy of Varanasi. There are 65 students waiting for us in Varanasi: 25 girls at the Disha house and 40 students of both genders from the Asha project.
Preparations have been hectic over the past month: we have been actively working to raise the funds for the project. First, we organized a self-defense seminar at The Hague University of Applied Sciences to raise awareness as well as money. Second, we followed on from our “FairFight, What’s Next” event in April to pursue our collaboration with the HE Space Foundation, who will be underwriting the costs of our project in India for this year. Unlike in Zimbabwe, where the scarcity of equipment on the ground means we have to bring in equipment in out suitcases, we managed to source cheap equipment in India, meaning the only thing we’re bringing this time is ourselves and the FairFight T-shirts, in green this time to symbolize the fertile jungles of India.
Our thanks go especially to Meera Rana from the Ashadiya Foundation, who sorted out most of our logistical issues on the ground for us, and to Devesh, who ordered the gis so that they will be waiting for us when we arrive at Disha. Internet is a challenge in Varanasi, but we will do our best to keep you posted, send you pictures and stories from our project over the next two weeks.
In the meantime, here are some pre-trip thoughts from the India Team:
India was always on the cards from the minute we started FairFight. To be honest, I used to dream about working in India when I was only 6 years old. I think it came from my obsession with the children’s book “The Secret Garden”, I used to write stories about India in my notebooks. In recent years, with the recurring disturbing news reports of violence against women in India, my resolve to use Martial Arts as a tool for dialogue and empowerment there increased. Buoyed by the success of our project in Zimbabwe, I knew when Ashadiya reached out to us that this could be the opportunity we had been waiting for. That said, I realise that as an outsider I know so little about India, having only been to Bangalore once. So I am looking forward to humbly learning and listening, taking my cue from the girls and their community, letting their priorities guide us. We are here to build bridges together, not impose ideas from the outside. Hopefully we will carve as deep friendships there as the martial arts family we have in Zimbabwe now.
Four nights left before we leave for India. It does not feel real yet. Every big journey I have ever undertaken never felt real until you step into that car, plane or whatever it is that is taking you where you want to go. There is no doubt that the full reality will hit me once Ginie and me park our bums in the way too small airplane seats. Two weeks in Varanasi, India which we have worked for, prepared for and looked forward to. To be honest I can’t wait to see the groups and teachers we’ll be working with, and see my carefully constructed lesson plans be swept away by all kinds of unforeseen events. That is however something you get used to, as most teachers of any kind can tell you, and in my opinion help form some of the charm of standing in front of a class. But to cut this paragraph short, I feel great, the team is great and India going to be great!
India is going to be full of surprises. I believe that this will be a learning journey not only for the girls and boys we will empower. We as FairFight are going to broaden our knowledge on the human aspect and how to further empower those girls and boys by attracting supporters from the local community - considering that it is a patriarchically-led, traditional community.
I feel that the individuals we will approach are going to welcome this project wholeheartedly and will benefit especially when it comes to battling with their own selves to overcome their past experiences. Looking at this journey as a whole I think that dealing with the heat of the country during trainings will be the least of my concern. What I seek to achieve is to actively interact with the young people from Ashadiya and relieve them from their pain. Martial arts are not only about building a good physical condition but are also concerned with stress relief and the balancing of emotions. Ultimately, as I will work to meet FairFight's empowerment goal for the Ashadiya school, I am positive that I will be empowered by these girls and boys as well.