Three events contributed to the genesis of the Grihini Program.
- The formation of a group of like-minded Indians and expatriates with a common concern for social health needs and living conditions of expatriated Tamils from Sri Lanka who were bonded labourers in the remote mountain villages around Kodaikanal.
- A donation of US$4,500.00 from Christians Linked in Mission (in St Louis) provided the funds to begin whatever way the locals chose.
- A discovery of the work of Jessie Tellis-Nayak describing and evaluating the effectiveness of Grihini programs around India (Tellis-Nayak, 1984).
Seeking for an effective way to use the donation, the group visited a number of the Grihini non-formal education programs reviewed by Tellis-Nayak in Tamil Nadu in order to learn what guidance they might provide. Following discussions of the various merits of the different models they had observed, they decided on a residential model program in the remote hill station of Kodaikanal. They selected a target group that focused on those least likely to engage in any existing government programs, namely: Dalits, Tribals and Tamil who had been repatriated from Sri Lanka, following the violent upheavals. A shared educational philosophy was developed to guide the planning and the generation of a relevant curriculum that would meet the specific local needs of the poor, and respectful of the marginalised women of the remote villages around Kodaikanal.
The original animators (teachers) were literate and skilled women selected from the target communities themselves. They were to teach classes in literacy, nutrition, health, crafts and dance-drama. In the planning stages they were brought into the initial planning group and given the necessary additional training before the commencement of the program. This training included opportunities to visit existing Grihini programs. These animators were crucial in helping create a close Grihini community and to understand the core values to be upheld. Today the teachers are women with degrees and professions, but importantly with a heart for working with the poor and a deep respect for the women they teach.
Active affirmation of the diverse religious and cultural backgrounds of the program participants was also core value. While the founders of the program were from a diversity of Christian backgrounds—Catholic, Lutheran, Pentecostal—the goal was to affirm and support the spiritual heritage of each Grihini whether Christian, Muslim or Hindu or from indigenous tribal spiritual beliefs. All were told we do not seek you to change your religious beliefs but we would encourage you to pray to a god who affirms you and others, and is not a God of destruction.
In 1987 about 30 of the poorest women between the ages of 13 and 23 were selected from the remote hills villages and brought to live in the facilities provided by Sacred Heart College which the Jesuits lent us rent free. To this day they charge us little for the use of their property. With each initial program based on the processes of on-going critical self and group reflection and formal reviews the program evolved has into a highly sought-after resource for women in the remote villages.
Central to the program of the Grihini Community College is the task of understanding and confronting the many challenges experienced by the women in the remote villages of the Palni Hills. These challenges involve almost every aspect of life in a remote mountain village.
A powerful challenge is the caste system which identifies millions of people in India as being outside the caste system. These include the Dalits and Tribals in the Grihini program who must find a way to face their marginalized status and gain a new identity. Women who have completed the program often leave with the phrase ‘I am a Grihini’.
A second challenge is poverty. Because these women are born to poverty, have little or no education and are conditioned to believe they are destined to be manual laborers doing the meanest of tasks, such as carrying wood, they often live their lives with little or no income and no control of their lives. Some families believe they are indebted to the landlord all their lives.
A third challenge related to poverty is village conditions and the consequent state of community health. The need to have access to clean water, clean streets, health care facilities is urgent. Life and security is highly fragile.
A fourth challenge of village life is the abuse of women and girls by men, especially those addicted to arrak, the local alcohol. The fear of young women being abused by landlords often leads to parents marrying their daughters off at an early age—as young as 13.
A fifth challenge is education. Until recent years most Dalit and Tribal women were thought to have no real capacity to learn. Their lot in life was to be coolie workers on plantations. They were, according to popular opinion, ‘born to work, not to read’. As a result, most women in these remote rural villages did not go to school or dropped out at an early age. Once they dropped out of the system there was and is not other options for them to return to study or to learn new skills.