Brunel Business School Professor of Innovation and the Social Enterprise Shyama Ramani reflects on her NGO work and its effects on the life of girls in rural India, as we celebrate the International Day of the Girl Child. She shares with us a story about an old grandmother and the wish of her dying granddaughter.
Today, Oct 11, is the International Day of the Girl Child, and this is a story of a very special girl and her grandmother who has been helping to bring up a number of her grandchildren. One of the girls was extremely handicapped and nearly blind, and her parents found her too difficult to raise, so the grandmother took care of her. The grandmother was one of the recipients of the prize for the toilet beauty contest – an NGO project I worked on with the local community as part of the Friend In Need Foundation, to generate user-driven innovations. This grandma had designed a foot path with different materials so that her blind granddaughter could more easily make her way to the toilet in the backyard. The grandma wanted the toilet especially for this precious girl as she and the family were facing many problems with helping this girl to go to the woods for defecation.
I visited all the prize winners a year after to find out what they had done with the money they won. I looked for the girl but couldn’t find her. “Where is she, grandma?” I asked. Grandma told me, “She’s dead – but she died happily – thanks to you and so I am at peace”. I became very uncomfortable, “how did she die?” Grandma explained, “As the most blessed of the Lords die, in her sleep.” I felt a tiny bit better, “And what what did you do with the prize money?”
Grandma drew in her breath, “You see, all her life because of her near total blindness, she had to wait for people to accompany her to find a secluded place for defecation. She said that if she could only get anklets that jingled loudly she would be able to find her way to those spots alone by learning the sound they make on the surface. But I was very afraid to let her go alone. Now, after building the toilet just behind the house, she finally became independent and she was so happy with it! So I spent the entire prize money to get the biggest and loudest pair of anklets I could find in the market! She loved them – and walked everywhere inside and outside the house with them. And she was right – she recognized the path to the toilet even better, because of the way the anklets clanked differently as she crossed different parts of the path. She smiled even more and she was so happy to get what she wanted all her life – those anklets. What more can I say, all is as God wills and those anklets, I will not give them to anyone and they will stay with me in my box of souvenirs as long as I live”.
After the conversation, we helped the grandma to empty the compost and we found some seeds for a fragrant flowering bush which we planted nearby in memory of the girl. It is real stories like these that make me go on in my action-research projects to ensure that every human being has access to a toilet on our planet – especially girls who are the most vulnerable.
Shyama V. Ramani is Professor of Entrepreneurship and Social Enterprise at Brunel Business School and the director of the Centre on International Business and Strategy in Emerging Markets at Brunel University. Prof Ramani holds a PhD in economics from Cornell University, USA. She is also a Professorial Fellow at the United Nations University (UNU-MERIT) at Maastricht, The Netherlands. After the tsunami of December 2004, she founded the non-profit organization ‘Friend in Need’, an action-research unit which aims to improve sanitation coverage and waste management in rural India. To find out more about Prof Ramani work in India please watch the video of her recent talk in TEDex.