My Indian odyssey
by Karen Sutton
I was visiting India with two objectives: to speak at the World CSR Day Conference in Mumbai and to celebrate a milestone birthday with friends in Goa. I love India, indeed Asian culture as a whole, and I truly believe it’s the one continent that I could live if I could ever tear myself away from the UK.
This was my second trip to India. I first visited in 2010 as a Rotarian and not working in the world of CSR and sustainability. This time around my mindset was different: I was acutely more aware of the impact of everything I saw and heard.
The World CSR Day conference ran over two days and covered a wide range of topics from sustainable communities to clean water. Five award ceremonies took place during those 48 hours too! My talk was about the overuse of prescription medication – in particular anti-biotics – after a recent personal near-death experience during surgery. My focus was on the recent changes in sales tactics that pharma giant GSK has implemented to overcome this problem.
At the conference I met Manjit Gill, a woman who runs Binti International, a charity to support the education and awareness of women’s health, in particular menstrual care. It was a true case of serendipity as she actually lives in my hometown of Weybridge!
Manjit explained to me how periods are a taboo subject in India with many teenagers being ashamed of their monthly cycle. There is very little sanitary wear available and many women resort to using dirty rags. India has the highest rate of cervical cancer in the world and latest research asserts that this is a direct result of poor hygiene standards and ignorance surrounding the subject. Manjit’s aim is to abolish the cultural taboo through education. She truly is an inspiration (as well as a new friend).
Doorstep School is a school bus with a difference: the vehicle actually is the school! It pulls up at the side of the road at the same time and place each day and local kids jump on and get some education! These children aren’t able to attend mainstream school for various reasons: they can’t afford the fees or they are responsible for taking care of younger siblings. Doorstep School is supported by one of our National CSR Award judges, Seema Sharma, one of TV’s ‘Secret Millionaires’ who runs a charity called Child Action.
SOS Children’s Villages blew me away. Active in over 120 countries, one of it’s villages in South Mumbai. Its model is based on the sustainable upbringing of abandoned and orphaned children where ‘SOS’ mothers act as full time carers. The village I visited was nothing like I expected.
After driving through a grove of date trees, we came to a beautifully clean community of houses with perfectly tended trees and plants. It was quiet at first – the children were resting because it was a Sunday – but when word got around that foreign visitors had arrived, things certainly livened up! All the children were polite, well-dressed and many spoke English. They go to school outside of the village in regular schools, all paid for by the charity. Once they reach the age of 10, they are encouraged to fulfil their hobbies and passions; whether it be computer science, catering or sport. The charity then pays for them to get further education, support them to get jobs and even slowly wean them off the financial support they are given over a three-year period once they’ve reached 18 and are in stable employment.
Outside of this wonderful village, the charity also supports 10 tribal villages. Prior to the charity’s involvement these tribes had no clean water, little sanitation and no education. Women were subject to regular abuse too. These communities are now clean, have fresh water and toilets, education and medical support. They also teach the women to speak out against violence and teach the men to understand why it’s wrong to mistreat their women.
This charity’s work is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. I was delighted I was able to make a donation from my local Rotary Club and it’s certainly a charity that I will support in the future.
In the next edition… Karen moves onto Goa to celebrate a milestone birthday and also discovers how ocean pollution is marring one of the most beautiful places on earth.