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WEL in southern India

This project enables Dalit women in general, and widows and ostracised women in particular, to receive training as silk weavers. The money they subsequently earn can secure the livelihood of their families. The project is also geared towards boosting their self-esteem and independents. In sangams (groups of women) in which the women are already involved, they receive financial advice and guidance on saving money. The school education of their children is also guaranteed. Silk weaving represents the main source of income for the high caste in and around Arni. Opening up this profession to Dalit women thus helps combat the differences between the castes.
Within a year, 30 women are to be trained – 15 in each six-month period. The women contribute part of the costs of the silk loom, material and training themselves; the rest is lent to them by WEL and repaid within ten months so that the money can go towards helping another woman. The total cost per woman is 9,500 rupees, of which 4,500 is paid by the women themselves and 5,000 is loaned by WEL to be repaid in monthly instalments of 500 rupees. An inexperienced silk weaver earns 2,000 rupees per month; with experience, she can expect to earn 3,000. Each silk weaver requires an assistant, whom she can train herself. New job opportunities are thus created for more Dalit women. In total, 191,900 rupees (around 10,000 German marks) are required to get the project off the ground. action five is providing this start-up financing. 
Alongside its director Parimala Ruby, WEL currently employs eleven full-time and three part-time staff. The part-time employees look after self-help groups in isolated villages, coming into the office only once a month. There are also 17 employees who are responsible for the state-funded programme for disabled people both in the day care centre and in the villages. Most members of staff are still quite young – between 20 and 40 – although one has been working for WEL for 10 years, and two other women have been there for over five years. They are all very committed, often being out and about until late in the evening visiting groups of people in the village. Some of them even have to come into the office on quite a few Sundays to deal with important tasks or host an event. On the other hand, the working day is less strict than in Germany: it is impossible to impose a fixed schedule, because hardly anyone would keep to it, and staff often have to take enforced breaks during the day if, for instance, they have to wait for someone. Besides the members of staff, Ruby’s husband and daughter are also heavily involved in WEL’s work. Anita, the daughter, who is actually a primary school teacher, is in charge of all e-mail correspondence – a very time-consuming task, as the office does not have an Internet connection – and helps out in particular with organizing the Indian-Swedish youth exchange. Ruby’s husband supports WEL by helping to organise larger events and maintains contact with important people in the area in his capacity as a member of the Lions club and through the parish council. 
During my visit, I took part in the various activities as an observer and documented them. I often went along to group meetings in the town and in the villages, where I was always received very warmly. Unfortunately, however, communication was very limited, as hardly any of the women spoke English. And, as only two staff members apart from Rudy could speak English, I frequently had to manage without an interpreter. As a result, much of what Ruby and her colleagues said in the meetings and training sessions I could not understand, which was a great shame. Although I tried to learn some Tamil, it was nowhere near enough for a conversation. 
In September, two more German volunteers joined the project. As the language barrier prevented us from helping with the regular activities, we had to decide how we could sensibly get involved. For instance, we drafted a new information brochure about WEL in English and German. We also prepared a “German Cultural Day”, where we would attempt to tell the Indian women about day-to-day life in Germany and the situation of women in particular through short presentations, songs, sketches, a home-made calendar and photo collages. We then presented this to around 100 representatives of self-help groups and had it translated into Tamil. The women listened intently and even asked us a few interesting questions afterwards. At a second event with WEL staff, we Germans baked some cakes for the staff, who returned the favour with a demonstration of Tamil dancing and short plays dealing with issues such as the ostracising of widows. At the end, we were even taught a Tamil dance.

During my visit, I learnt a lot about daily life in a southern Indian town. As almost the only foreigners in Arni, we were something of an attraction for the local population. I was very often approached on the street or in the shops, and children in particular would run up to me, asking me my name and wanting to shake my hand. The women from the self-help groups were always delighted when I came to their meetings, offering me tea or coffee as a sign of their hospitality – and sometimes I even had flowers put in my hair. The members of staff, too, were very open and interested in me, despite the language barrier, even inviting me into their homes.

Most Indians live in large family groups in very cramped conditions, and few houses have running water. I found the chaotic conditions on the roads particularly stressful and uncomfortable – they are very dusty and dirty and much too narrow for a level of traffic that has risen sharply over the past few years. As a pedestrian, you are in constant danger of being run over by recklessly driven buses, motorbikes and tuk-tuks. The noise on the main streets is unbearable, as drivers are constantly blowing their horns instead of braking. And, as Arni has no proper sewer system, the walk to the bus station of shops during the rainy season becomes a real obstacle course. Further major problems are the limited waste disposal services, the open sewers and the countless stray dogs, goats, pigs and donkeys. They feed on the waste lying around, are often in a pitiful condition and thus are potential carriers of disease. However, much work still needs to be done to raise awareness among the local population about the need for a better understanding of hygiene and keeping the local area clean. By setting up rubbish bins, among other things, WEL is attempting to take the first step in this direction.

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