COUNTRY: SOUTHERN INDIA
PROJECT: JONG – JUST ORGANIZATION FOR NATURAL GROWTH
DIRECTOR: MARTIN RICHARD RAJU
JONG is an organization which works on issues affecting the rural poor, with a special focus on women and children. Although the caste system in India has been officially abolished, those belonging to the lowest castes, like Dalit (“untouchables”) and Valayar, have few resources to escape poverty. JONG programs serve 50 low caste villages in Southern India through a combination of education, health, and economic empowerment.
Children in the low-caste villages of the JONG project area used to routinely drop out of school after the 5th grade because they struggled in school with little or no support from their illiterate parents. After-school tutoring and enrichment activities, along with help with uniforms and school supplies, provided the support children needed to succeed in school. Now it is rare if a child does not complete the 10th grade, and many continue beyond.
Martin noticed, however, that there was a big gap between the boys and girls when it came to pursuing education at the higher grade levels. Middle and high schools require a longer commute, and this exposes young girls to the dangers of sexual assault so girls were afraid to continue their schooling. To address this, Martin started a bicycle program for the girls. Commuting by bicycle keeps girls safe and eases parents’ concerns. Now girls are just as likely as the boys to pursue higher levels of education, and they love to share their dreams of becoming doctors and teachers and government administrators who will serve their communities.
Maternal and infant mortality used to be very high in our villages, and village women convinced Martin to do something about it. Martin hired two nurses and they administer workshops which train expectant mothers in topics such as proper nutrition, practices for avoiding infections, the importance of IFA tablets (to eliminate worms), and the risk of home births (dangerous for women who don’t have easy access to medical care if complications arise). They monitor the health of the women monthly – testing for gestational diabetes, preeclampsia, kidney failure, and other health risks. Unlike the government clinics which expect women to travel to the clinics – something difficult for women living in remote areas with limited transportation – JONG nurses travel to the villages to evaluate the women.
After birth, the nurses continue to monitor the health of the babies for two years. Mothers are taught the importance of breast feeding, good hygiene, and how to treat diarrhea – the most common cause of infant death. The nurses also provide the required immunizations. The result? Not a single maternal or infant death since the program got in full swing! The program has been so successful, in fact, that many more villages have requested they be added. JONG now has 4 nurses and serves more than 100 villages and hopes to expand to 6 nurses and 150 villages.
Life is difficult and dangerous in villages stricken by poverty. With poor nutrition, a lack of money for medical care, and dangers that we can hardly imagine (e.g. women without toilets are at risk of snake bites since they wait until dark to use bushes to eliminate), death at young ages is much too common. Hopelessness even leads to many suicides. As a result, there are many partial or full orphans in our project area. Such families need additional help, so Martin works with caregivers to create an income generating plan. Some women choose tailoring training and sewing machines, others want to raise animals, and widowers might require agricultural tools to increase their productivity. We work with one caregiver at a time to create a plan. This alleviates a tremendous burden on the caregivers and ensures orphans will receive adequate care.
Climate change is hitting southern India hard, and monsoon rains have become light and unpredictable. This creates great hardship for villages whose livelihoods depend on agriculture. To address this challenge, we are funding dry-soil-cultivation workshops to help villagers shift from rice production to vegetables, ground nuts, and other crops that use substantially less water. We are digging agricultural bore wells which serve whole villages. Longer term, we are building a vocational training center which will provide training in eight different skills in high demand in southern India – from tailoring to basic computer literacy. This will help reduce their dependence on agriculture.
Martin Richard Raju has a Master’s degree in social work. He strongly believes that only through education can we bring lasting change to the social and economic life of the poor. Because of this belief and commitment, he founded an English-medium school in a remote area to give English education to the rural poor – something normally only available in India to children from rich and middle class families living in cities and towns. Once the school was well-established, he founded JONG and left his education post to fully concentrate on JONG’s programs. An outstanding administrator, the projects have been very effective under his leadership, and the villages are slowly being transformed.