Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Starting over at the Ashram

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Starting over at the Ashram

Article excerpt

In southern India, women who once fled their homes with nothing in hand are now helping others to earn a living and playing a role in health and education programmes

It all began with one woman's dream to help those in the same situation as herself: poor, uneducated and in urgent need of a safe haven.

In 1975, Susheelamma found herself with two children to support and a broken marriage. The daughter of a weaver, her education was cut short because her family couldn't afford secondary school fees. Today, she is at the head of the Sumangali Seva Ashram in Bangalore, staffed by a dedicated team of 450 full-time volunteers. Day after day, the ashram offers destitute women who come knocking at its door a roof over their heads and a chance to get a new start in life by learning a skill. Once they can stand on their own feet, the women are free to look for jobs outside the ashram, or to work with its myriad projects for a small stipend and two square meals a day. Many of them have never forgotten the hope it provided, and continue to contribute to the ashram's smooth running in some form or other.

It is a gaping vacuum in social services that prompted Susheelamma and a group of friends to found the ashram in 1975. At the time, they managed to convince the state government to allot them a plot of land to build a small shelter and a school to educate destitute women. But the land had a deep open pit on it, and filling it was beyond their financial reach. Slowly but surely, Susheelamma and her friends convinced people to donate to their cause, and eventually a school shed was built.

"We did not have the money to buy books for children or to feed the women who had arrived at the ashram to stay," says Susheelamma, a petite and frail 65 year-old who continues to preside tirelessly over the ashram's activities. She and the other volunteers would work all night to make little trinkets, which they sold to raise meagre sums of money. When she started the ashram, she was earning a mere 170 rupees a month (around $4) from her work as a warden and a nursery school teacher. Of this, she used Rs100 to maintain her family, and the rest to launch the ashram's programmes. "Some volunteers, like Parvatamma [who is a member of the ashram's core committee, and more fortunate], would hand over their entire monthly salary cheques to us," recalls Susheelamma.

The ashram's first income-generation scheme involved cutting and twisting wires into a U-shape to be sold as metal poultry feeders. One kilogram of these would fetch 40 paise (less than a cent), but drop by drop, they had enough to make ends meet. Then they made garlands of silk cocoons. Volunteers would carry sacks of them on their backs in the overcrowded state transport buses to deliver them to stores across the city.

Lifelong loyalty

Today, the ashram receives grants from the government as well as financial and material assistance from international aid agencies, along with individual donations. Its real asset, however, are the volunteers: from the outset, the ashram was based on the principle of recruiting those who once benefited from its services. Committed to improving the lives of their less fortunate sisters, the volunteers run education and training programmes, provide counselling to women in distress (who may not need shelter) and conduct regular adult literacy programmes, health check-ups and immunization campaigns. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.