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Thank You India: The Experience That Changed a Life


Brenda Cranney (see picture at left) stumbled, shivered, shied, and scratched her way through the first portion of her inaugural experience in development.

But despite the cold, the lack of privacy, the lice, and the fleabites that were initially difficult to cope with, the sociologist says that living and working in India changed her forever.

While completing her Ph.D., Cranney had the opportunity to work in India thanks to the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) Young Canadian Researchers Award she won in 1998. IDRC, one of Canada?s leading development agencies, funds research for development throughout the world.

Cranney spent a year in the rural areas of Himachal Pradesh meeting and talking with women from several villages and investigating the success of specific income-generating projects, such as social forestry, in initiating positive transformation of gender roles, as well as examining the benefits to the environment.

"I lived in the villages, so I was able to develop relationships with the women and conduct the interviews over extended periods of time. As the women became more relaxed with me, they shared experiences that they were unable to share with me initially. I took part in daily chores such as collecting fodder and water, so I was able to experience firsthand what I was there to research. This experience was by far the most valuable for me."

Her research focused on the ways in which the degradation of the environment in rural India--the result of inept, inadequate, and inappropriate development programs--has impacted on poor women's productive and reproductive work, their health, and their experience of family and culture.

What emerged from Cranney?s preliminary analysis was that women have not been involved in planning or implementing the projects. She noted, "From my limited research data from the women's point of view, I would suggest that social forestry has not benefited the women. This is especially true in the poorer villages. The women are very frustrated with the government and want some kind of income-generation programs that will give them some additional income. This income is not for luxuries but for basic survival needs. The benefits of social forestry have not trickled down to the women in the village."

Challenges Encountered

The circumstances that Cranney faced in the field were challenging, to say the least. The first mistake she made was assuming that she would be ready to start fieldwork in a specific village after just arriving in India. In fact, she found that the area she had chosen was very isolated. People had already told her that the area is at a high elevation with very cold temperatures and deep snow in winter (she was advised that she might need snow shoes). She encountered delays in meeting with forestry and government officials and a great deal of difficulty in finding, and keeping, good research assistants. She also found it challenging to conduct interviews at first because of her limited knowledge of the language. "Language is definitely a problem, even with an interpreter?, she says, adding that she felt handicapped by not being able to communicate directly with the women.

Upon her return to the field after a short break, she found that some men in the village had decided not to allow a Christian to stay in the village, and they proceeded to carry out a purification ritual.

"This was a complete surprise to me, as the women and men that I had met there [earlier] were very open with me and wanted me to come back. To add to my problems, my research assistant found another job and could not work with me. This meant that not only did I have to find a new area to work in but also I had to find another research assistant.? It was at that point Cranney considered packing up and going home. ?I was staying in an apartment with no heat, and the temperature inside was so cold it was impossible to work on my computer or write?, says Cranney. She was also battling illness and decided to go back to Delhi to take stock of the situation.

She then connected with ASK (Atma Swasthya Kendra), a Holistic Health Farm Community involved in village outreach programmes dealing with women's health, nutrition, sanitation, fertility awareness, and integrated functional literacy. One of the staff members agreed to be her research assistant, and she travelled to Ghanna Hatti in the Shilma region to continue her fieldwork. Teaming up with ASK turned out to be very beneficial, because this organization already knew the women that Channey wanted to work with.

Information Sharing

"The women related well with me. I feel this is because I shared with them that I was from a rural background and had 11 brothers and sisters", she explained. "They asked me many questions about agriculture, from which crops were grown to what kinds of clothes agricultural workers were wearing. They also wanted to know why there are so many children [in my family] and what each one does, such as marital status and employment. The women were also interested in knowing about conditions of women in Canada. Is there abuse of women? Do women work harder than men?"

"I asked the women how they felt about my coming and asking them questions and interrupting their work. I received very positive feedback," she stated. "In one village the women said that when they saw us coming up the mountain, they thought that God had finally come to take them away from their miserable lives. No one was interested in them, they felt. ?They think we are cows or buffaloes up here,' they said." The women were pleased that someone wanted to talk to them about their lives.

Current Activities

Since completing her award tenure with IDRC, Brenda has returned to India several times to conduct further field research on the impact of the environment on the lives of women. In January 1998, she returned to Himachal Pradesh to conduct postdoctoral research further north from the village she worked in before. One aspect of this research was to develop a feminist research methodology that would clearly delineate the needs of women.

Cranney, who uses photography as an integral part of her research, is currently working on her second book that will focus on older women and health issues in India. As a board member of the Canadian Woman Studies journal, she is spending a month in South Africa to attend the Earth Summit where she will distribute their latest issue and network with other women to talk about development issues.

Personal Development

In a letter to IDRC Awards Officer Rita Bowry shortly after she arrived back in Canada, Cranney wrote, "I have had a very difficult time adjusting to being back in Canada. The pace is far too hectic and priorities have changed drastically. The move from a two-roomed home in the village with no indoor plumbing or running water to an apartment in the city has been overwhelming."

Cranney relished the experience, even though the adjustment period on each end was less than smooth. The fact that she has returned several times to conduct further research is a testament to the degree of which the country and its people have touched a chord in Cranney. She says as much in the book she compiled after the fact.

?My experience in India ? left me forever changed. I was profoundly affected by the work and by the people that I lived with and grew to care deeply about. By the time I left, I think I had become as much a part of their lives as they mine.?

The lesson, it seems, is that although things may not be easy at first, in the long run the rewards of work in development can be immeasurable.

This article was modified from one originally published on the IDRC Training and Awards site.