Dianne Sharma-Winter runs Women Travel India and here she writes about voluteering in India:
Hot on the heels of a recent article I wrote about why India doesn’t need you to volunteer, I was lured into doing the very thing I advised against! For the next three months I have committed my time and energy to volunteering at Sambhali Women and Girl Empowerment Centre in Jodhpur, Rajasthan and am currently living with 15 rambunctious girls in a boarding house.
How did this happen you may ask and do my previous writings on the subject still hold true? Indeed they do! If you are thinking about volunteering in India then I still advise you to consider very seriously your own motivations for doing so.
For myself, a lifetime of volunteering and working for social change within my own community has helped me to understand the issues involved when someone from one culture arrives “to help” another. Often helping can be misinterpreted as colonialism, the “helpers” culture subsumes the other and cultural imperialism is the result. In a recent post on Volunteer tourism on the Ethical Traveler website, Paul Miedema of Calabash Tours operating in the slums of South Africa, said that,
“Too much of what I see around me benefits only the volunteer, volunteering holidays are not a beach package. A lot of the work I do is about creating a shared humanity.”
When the story of the young woman who was viciously raped and who subsequently died in Delhi caused women (and men) to rise in outrage across India, I joined with my friends to protest and call for action. We made pledges, we took back the coldest winter night in forty years in the city and stirred up the dialogue around issues of safety for women, sexual attack and gendercide in the country. For me the shouting of slogans was a way to show my solidarity with the sisterhood but there was a desire to contribute in ways that would have a lingering result. In any case our Indian sisters are well able to mould their own form of feminism and all they needed from me was emotional and physical support, and maybe just a few words of hard won wisdom from my own experiences of feminism.
Something I learned from working within my own community raising awareness of the issues of family and sexual violence is that your energy is best placed in areas that will plant a seed for the future. Change happens slowly, and social change happens across generations and children are the seeds of the next generation of adults and decision makers, right? So I concentrated my efforts there, in schools and with children.
When I contacted Govind Singh Rathore and offered my services as a volunteer, originally I thought that a month would salve my social conscience and still leave me time to go and party in Goa with friends. I had ideas that I would sit in the gorgeous boutique they operate near to Mehrangargh Fort, chat to tourists and spent afternoons teaching English to some of the women in the Sambhali Empowerment Centre. Govind wrote back and said he would place me in the boarding house with the children and in doing so subtly awoke my moral conscience, reminding me that volunteering or working for social change is not about what I can do WITH the people but what I can do FOR the people.
Visions of days lazing on the beach beneath coconut trees and dancing into the night shattered into 15 tiny pieces, I wrote to my friends to explain that my priorities had changed. I wrote again to Govind and said I would come for three months. After all what can you hope to achieve in one month when you are working to change a system and attitudes that are centuries old? Three months is not a major save the world kind of sacrifice but a bare minimum, a tiny offering into an ocean of need.