From November 21—December 15, 2004, Sister Joyce Meyer, PBVM, Executive Director of the Conrad N. Hilton Fund for Sisters, visited India and Thailand. She returned home just two weeks before the tsunami struck South Asia on December 26, 2004.
The last time Sr. Joyce visited India was 20 years ago. She found that many things had changed since her last trip. India is a rapidly developing country thanks to investment from overseas companies, so new construction projects could be seen everywhere. Electricity and running water are now available in all urban areas and the cities appeared orderly and clean. There were even fewer cows roaming around since more people are living in apartments and have no place to keep them. What had not changed was the amount of people and traffic everywhere. In between the new construction zones were overpopulated slums lined with shacks. These areas are not hooked-up to the city’s main sewer and power lines, so the slum-dwellers must take care of their personal business outside. This is also the case of Tribals or Dalits living in rural areas. Current law condemns the caste system, but it is still ingrained in society and widely accepted.
During her trip, Sr. Joyce met many sisters who are working with the poor in the cities and in rural areas to help them to become educated and learn vocational skills so they can improve the lives of their families and themselves.
On November 22nd, Sr. Joyce met with the Sister-Director of an advocacy group for domestic workers in Mumbai (formerly Bombay). The agency is a national network of sisters and lay persons who teach women and children domestic workers about their rights. The organization is present in 17 states and among 28 language groups. Seven of the states with the highest numbers of domestic workers have coordinators. The state of Kerala has the highest number of domestic workers in India. In Mumbai alone, there are about 700,000 domestic workers; 100,000 are children, many under 14 years old.
The agency was established to combat the violence inflicted on domestic workers by their employers. While at work, employees are often subjected to physical, emotional and sexual abuse. Since the workers are from lower castes, they are not considered employees and are looked upon as less than human, so their rights are not protected. Only two states, out of 24, have laws for minimum wage for domestic workers. When the organization first got started, it was met with opposition from employers and the authorities. Now, there is cooperation among the agency and local police officers. The Sister-Director was given a police card so that she can rescue women and children from abusive employers at their work places. The Sisters’ Fund awarded this important project a multi-year grant.
Later that day, two coordinators from the agency took Sr. Joyce to one of the major slums in Mumbai to meet with domestic workers. The first meeting was attended by 20 girls, all under 14 years old. These children have never attended school and have little hope of ever going. The meetings give the girls an opportunity to share their experiences, to teach them that they are important as human beings and that they have rights and ways to obtain protection from abuse. The coordinators lead the girls through exercises to strengthen their self-esteem and counsel them on how to handle particular work situations. At the meeting, Sr. Joyce met a 13-year-old girl that recently had a baby after a family member of her employer raped her. She is struggling to take on the responsibilities of an adult because she has no other family to assist her.
After the meeting, Sr. Joyce toured the slum and visited some of the women’s homes. The slum was a maze of one-room huts, housing five to ten people. A typical house was actually just an open room. One corner had a mat on the floor for a family’s sleeping area; in another corner, was an area for cooking over an open fire; and in the third corner, was a bathing/urinating area with a hole in the ground that lead to open sewers running throughout the slum. The slum had a few public toilets scattered throughout the neighborhood.
On November 25th, Sr. Joyce was in Bangalore, and met with sisters from different congregations. This meeting gave Joyce an opportunity to share information about the Hilton Fund for Sisters and learn about each congregation’s projects. Joyce conducts these types of meetings in every country that she travels to.
Later that day, she visited a school for children from the nearby slums. While there, Joyce saw the school’s science lab and meal program that was established by a grant from the Sisters’ Fund. The government only provides assistance for schools for the poor up to the seventh grade. Sisters are responsible for funding their schools if they teach higher-grade levels. The sisters are hoping to upgrade the school, once they find extra funding.
The next day, November 26th, Joyce visited a nursery school for children of domestic workers and met with 100 mothers. A majority of the mothers are illiterate and only live on what they earn as housekeepers. From the sisters, they have learned better childcare practices. Now, their children come to school groomed and clean.
On November 27th, Sr. Joyce met with a congregation that took her to visit three of their projects around Bangalore. The first visit was to a slum community where the sisters are organizing a group of women to prevent the destruction of their homes. The slum-dwellers were refugees or immigrants from rural areas before they become settled squatters—some residents have lived there as long as 10 or 15 years. The local government ignored their situation until they wanted to use the land to build a school and began bulldozing people’s homes. With the help of the sisters, the women have organized to stop the further destruction of their neighborhood; their next priority is to obtain public toilets.
The sisters also helped the women to initiate a savings and loan program. Thanks to the program, many of the mothers have been able to provide food, clothing and education for their children. Some women have even saved enough money to buy motorized rickshaws for their husbands, so they can help generate income for the family, too.
The last site-visits of the day were to a tailoring project, where women are being taught sewing skills and to a school for children with leprosy. The locals in the community ostracize those with leprosy or if their family members have leprosy.
A few days later, Sr. Joyce was in Chennai and on November 30th, she visited a nursery school for slum children and a bookbinding project. This project constructs and sells exercise books to schools and accounting companies. The funds raised from this activity helps to finance the school. Until recently, the project generated a sizable income but the introduction of machines made hand-sewn books expensive because they are more costly to produce. As a result, the school’s income is decreasing.
Next, Joyce visited a stainless-steel workers slum that had many child-workers. The slum is very large and located along a canal that is used as a sewer and garbage dump. The same water is also used as a toilet and for bathing. Children of all ages are employed in making stainless steel buckets, bowls and tableware. Their faces are all black from the steel filings that collect in the air as they file steel on the machines. The children wear no protective masks or clothing.
Afterwards, Sr. Joyce walked through several alleys of closely compacted shacks before meeting with a women’s group from the area. The meeting was held in a small room and the discussion centered on the need for toilets and water in the slums in order to keep the area clean. As the population increases, the sanitation situation worsens. The main water supply has been in disrepair for several months and the only other source of water is from a polluted canal. The slum women are asking for the sisters’ help in organizing a delegation to approach the local government about these issues.
Later that day, Joyce visited a fishing community on the eastern coast of the Indian Ocean (which was affected by the Tsunami). Families in the area live in shelters constructed of plastic sheets, banana leaves or grass and bamboo. There is no water or sanitation available. The men work on fishing boats and the women do what they can to earn money—usually as food vendors or domestic workers. Children do not go to school so they can help earn income.
Following this visit, Sr. Joyce met families living in large, government-owned, high-rise apartment buildings. Each apartment is large enough to fit a communal bed, a corner kitchen with a grate for a fire, a toilet and a small, open area. The cramped quarters provide little ventilation. At the complex, the women operate a grocery store—they buy rice, beans and other supplies in bulk and package them to sell to their neighbors. They also deliver goods to people who cannot make it up the five flights of stairs to reach the store. The women are very proud of their small business. A couple that also lives in the complex produces toilet cleaners and detergents that they sell for income. Other women sell framed pictures and a few families sell the milk from their cows.
A couple of days later, December 1st, Joyce traveled to Delhi and found the city remarkably changed from 20 years ago. New Delhi is a modern and beautiful city with wide streets and boulevards, magnificent buildings and large, open parks with lots of flowers and trees. In contrast, Old Delhi is cramped with narrow streets and crowded, dilapidated buildings.
On December 3rd, Sr. Joyce traveled to Rhotok, a town about two hours outside of Delhi. The sisters in the town have a school for rag picker’s children—they provide courses in sewing, paper-plate construction and cosmetology. When the sisters first arrived, they had to work to gain the trust of the locals. The children used to come to school filthy; but since then, the sisters have been able to teach their parents the importance of hygiene. Now, the children come to school clean and groomed. The school has become very successful in a short amount of time. The sisters first opened the school in a makeshift shed; but with the help of grants, they were able to build a school with five classrooms. The school is already overcrowded because parents of the nearby slums saw the advantages of enrolling their children in school.
The next day, December 4th, Joyce toured a kindergarten—twelfth grade school that enrolls 3,000 students. The students come from wealthy Hindu families and poor families. In one class, Joyce saw girls learning karate as a form of self-defense. She also saw a very interesting environmental education project—a recycling industry. The teachers collect all the used paper from the school and the students help to shred it into small pieces. Workers are hired to process the shredded pieces into recycled paper on the school grounds. Once the paper is prepared, it is sent to a company that makes it into attractive bags the school sells for income.
On December 5th, Sr. Joyce traveled to Bangkok, Thailand for the Southeast Asia Major Superiors Meeting (SEAMS). She was in Thailand just three years ago when she toured countries throughout Southeast Asia and attended the SEAMS conference in Malaysia. While in Thailand, Joyce was able to revisit projects that she saw on her first trip, learn about issues affecting the religious in Southeast Asia and learn about new projects.
The day after Joyce’s arrival, December 6th, she toured a garbage-dump community outside of Bangkok. The slum is located on the outskirts of the city’s dumping grounds and is home to 271 families, about 1,000 people, who survive by collecting, separating and selling recycled garbage. They live in shacks constructed of scavenged materials; electricity is available and a truck distributes drinking water to the area. A Sister has been working with the families in this community for the past 15 years. The government regulates the garbage collector’s work by allowing them to visit the dump at certain times during the day. The scavengers have a well-organized system where only certain families collect and process different materials such as, plastic bottles, rubber hoses, shoe rubber, glass, dishes, knick-knacks, metal or electrical parts. A few families collect linoleum and wash it in the swamp near the settlement. Other families have started their own food-vending business to sell to other workers.
A few years ago, 95% of the community was addicted to drugs in order to stay awake and work. It has been a struggle to keep the community drug-free because not all of workers cooperate. If some members do not make enough money in their part of the business, they sell drugs to others in the community. Most of the workers have no desire to move away. The scavenging business is all that they know—they make enough money to survive and are proud of their accomplishments.
Joyce was invited into some to the families’ homes and saw that they were crowded with the materials they scavenged. Common diseases are rampant throughout the community because of all the contamination and the unhealthy ways they process garbage. Most families cannot afford to pay for medical care; instead, they prefer to use home remedies that are not always effective.
Later that week, on December 9th, Sr. Joyce traveled to NongKhai in northeastern Thailand. The sisters working in NongKhai have received a grant from the Sisters’ Fund for their outreach work with HIV/AIDS families. Families live in homes built on stilts, with open-air platforms and an enclosed section for sleeping. Animals and poultry are kept under the houses. Each family has an outdoor latrine and bathing area. Some have water taps and others collect water from wells or streams.
All of the families Joyce met had children infected with HIV/AIDS. Most of the children are under the care of their grandmothers. Last year, the Thai government started providing free anti-retroviral drugs to HIV/AIDS patients. The drugs have allowed parents to live longer so they can look after their children, work and live healthier lives.
The next day, December 10th, Sr. Joyce visited the sewing center on the sisters’ farm. At the center, the women are trained and hired to produce fabric, ready made clothing, household goods and decorative objects. Cotton is spun and woven into fabric on-site. The sisters have a quality-control system to assure the produced goods are of the highest quality. Their main challenge is to find markets for their products. Most of their markets are overseas because, according to the sisters, Thai people prefer to buy foreign made goods.
While at the farm, Joyce saw many different projects taking place. The sistes have a sewing/weaving and pottery project that is regulated to ensure that each product is well made. They also have a mushroom farm, a fishery and a cattle project that provides families with cows and milk. The agriculture project received a grant from the by the Sisters’ Fund. The sisters had to discontinue their poultry project, which was very important for generating income, because the Asian bird-flu epidemic was ravaging the region. The farm also functions as a demonstration garden to train farmers and as a convention center to generate income for the farm. The sisters are constantly seeking new ways to generate income so that many of their projects can be self-supporting.
On December 11th, Sr. Joyce had the pleasure of attending the weekly HIV/AIDS family day that was both touching and inspiring. Women, children and men who are either infected or had infected family members participated. First, Joyce met the adult group that shared their hopes, fears and difficulties. They were able to relate how much the group meant to them and accepted them without judgement. The group has become like an extended family. The participants expressed gratitude to the Sister’s Fund for helping to make their lives better and were touched that Joyce took the opportunity to visit them. Afterwards, Sr. Joyce visited the youth and children’s sessions and attended the group’s Christmas program performance.
Joyce flew to Chiang Mai, a mountainous region in northern Thailand, on December 12th. From there, she traveled by bus for three hours to Fang. The sisters in this community manage a hostel for about 100 children from local tribes. The sisters supervise the children everyday, except holidays, when they return to their village homes. The children are from three major tribes in the area—the Akha, Lahu and Karen. The parish priest, who is Italian, opened the hostel a few years ago. He is well connected with other Italians who help to pay each child’s tuition so they can attend public school. To help with expenses, the priest opened a shop that employs three women who make woven, embroidered bags that are sold overseas. The bags are beautiful and very well made—their sales contribute a substantial income to the school each year.
One of the sisters Joyce met works in villages one to three hours away from Fang. She is trying to help the villagers obtain identity card because are not considered Thai, even though they have lived in Thailand for many years. The villagers emigrated from either Myanmar or China and many still follow their traditional customs of dress and life.
The villagers live in thatched shelters built on stilts, similar to other Thai people. It is much colder in the mountains, so everyone wears heavier clothing to stay warm and dry; but during the cold season, many people fall ill. Most of the people have very little income and cannot afford to buy medicines so they use traditional remedies. Families earn income as subsistence farmers and sell their produce or homemade crafts at local markets. Since the villagers are considered to be exceptional farmers, some work on commercial farms in the area. Unfortunately, HIV/AIDS and heroin addiction is common here, because the village is on the border of an area that is well known for drugs and sex trafficking.
The majority of the people living in the villages are illiterate because they are not allowed to attend school without identity cards. Parents are pleased that their younger children have the chance to attend school; instead of moving to cities in the south to find work.
During Sr. Joyce’s visit to India and Thailand, she found two, fast-developing countries with large populations that are becoming economic centers in Asia. Along with each country’s growing middle-class, the poor—living in urban slums and rural areas—are still in need of basic social services such as housing, sanitation, healthcare and education. After meeting with sisters in India and Thailand, Sr. Joyce is hopeful that underprivileged groups, who have historically been discriminated against, will be able to benefit from their country’s rapid development.