Lotus Circle International
Women’s Empowerment Project
With Auroville Village Action Group
Tamil Nadu, India
February 2009: Six-person International team worked with AVAG for 3 weeks (Beth Nielsen, Glyndie Nickerson, Lida Ruiter, Jane Lazar, Nicola Ransen, Patricia Meadows and Jacqueline Manalastas – see LCI Friends page for their Bio’s)
September 2009: Follow up trip by Beth Nielsen, founder of Lotus Circle International, for one month with AVAG
September 2010: Two-person team visited AVAG for 3 weeks (Beth Nielsen and Lucia Dei Roncalli – See LCI Friends page for their Bio’s)
India Project Summary
LCI’s Women’s Empowerment Project India began in response to a plea for help from Anbu Moris, Auroville Village Action Group (AVAG) coordinator, after a sharp increase in suicides by women members of the local self help groups they organize. Anbu reported that 12 suicides had occurred among women in the villages in the past year, typically by hanging, poison or self-immolation with kerosene. In addition to suicidal ideation, severe depression, anxiety and a variety of somatic symptoms were being reported by many of the women. Oppression, abuse and disempowerment were rampant amongst the women. In September 2010 AVAG staff told us that in the last year the suicide rate amongst the women’s self help groups has dropped to zero due to LCI’s help!
In February 2009 Glyndie Nickerson and I led a group of healing professionals trained in Somatic Experiencing (SE) to offer local Tamil Nadu village women and AVAG staff members education and treatment in empowerment, self-regulation and trauma healing. This was the first team to serve in India under the auspices of Lotus Circle International (LCI), a U.S. based non-profit organization which I founded in January 2009 to assist disempowered, traumatized and underserved individuals and communities affected by violence, disasters, and adversity. LCI provides education, treatment, and integrative healing tools for trauma resolution and nervous system regulation.
LCI Women’s Empowerment Team works collaboratively with AVAG, a well-established NGO based in Auroville, which provides support for local villages by organizing self help groups (SHGs) that focus on improving the social status and personal development of local women who experience societal oppression. SHGs also exist for men.
This trip was very successful with over 250 people receiving sessions and/or trainings in self-regulation and empowerment skills based on the Somatic Experiencing method developed by Peter Levine. See www.traumahealing.com for more information.
The LCI team provided three 2-day and two 1-day empowerment workshops called Community Healing Groups (CHGs) to village women and staff in Auroville, including a dozen men, health center staff, teachers, AVAG staff, federation members, and other various staff working to support village men, women, and children. Additionally, the team provided over 100 individual SE empowerment sessions to disempowered village women, including many women who were severely traumatized, suicidal, depressed and anxious.
Then in Sept. 2009 I traveled to Auroville for one full month to provide follow up Somatic Experiencing sessions with the more severe cases seen in Feb. 2009. Up to 120 people received additional sessions and/or trainings.
During this time the coordinator of Auroville Village Action Group (AVAG), Anbu Moris, and I worked closely together offering sessions to the village women who were suicidal and/or severely distressed and traumatized mostly due to their oppressive living conditions which often included domestic violence, lack of health care and education, no livelihood, and little resources to offer them an escape from the brutality they were enduring. Anbu translated the women’s plight from Tamil to English as we counseled them and offered them Somatic Experiencing sessions. Anbu has continued provide follow up sessions with many of the women and supports their continued efforts to practice the Somatic skills they have learned.
In September 2010 Lucia Dei Roncalli and returned again to AVAG for one month to provide further training and follow up sessions. During this trip AVAG staff reported that the suicide rate amongst their women’s self help group had dropped to zero since we began our work with them!
My relationship with AVAG began shortly after the December 2004 tsunami, which killed 283,000 people in 11 countries, including 11,000 people living in the southern India state of Tamil Nadu. In June 2005, I accompanied SE senior Faculty Raja Selvam and a team of SE-trained therapists to Tamil Nadu to help tsunami survivors resolve post-traumatic stress. During that trip, a few team members and I offered AVAG a short introductory workshop to a select group of women villagers who serve as leaders in the SHGs. At Anbu’s invitation, we presented ways to heal traumatic stress resulting from domestic violence. Our workshop offered experiential exercises to help the women understand how to regulate their physical responses to trauma, and proved to be so successful that Anbu requested that we return to AVAG sometime in the future. That time became apparent after the level of despair, suicidal ideation, and actual suicides of women in the villages had reached a critical level. It is not clear whether this increase in suicides correlates in any way to long- term effects from the tsunami. What we do know is that the women experience many problems related to oppression and lack of resources.
The village women served by AVAG are from lower castes, are mostly illiterate, lack basic education and any occupational training, and have little or no social and economic status. For these women, AVAG provides their sole support in the form of the monthly support groups and workshops, and for some, job training programs and micro-financing. LCI’s Community Healing Groups and individual sessions compliment AVAG’s support by filling in the gap for mental health services. By offering tools for empowerment rather than traditional therapy, which tends to pathologize, LCI helps people become open and eager to learn. We have repeatedly seen this work empower women, help restore their dignity, increase their resiliency, and bring hope.
Support and resources in general are very limited for the poor in this part of India. Mental health care is also extremely limited, and the stigma associated with receiving mental health services keeps many from accessing any free services that might be available. There are no shelters for victims of domestic violence and local police offers little support. Village leaders who would otherwise be responsible for guiding and correcting these situations are often caught up in their own problems, such as alcoholism. Local NGOs provide some support, but often lack resources and trained mental health care professionals, particularly those who specialize in working with post-traumatic stress.
More about AVAG:
LCI’s team was very fortunate to work with AVAG, a well-respected and organized NGO. Since its founding in 1983 by a woman named Bhavana Dee, AVAG has organized nearly 200 SHGs spread over 40 villages, all of which utilize a “people’s participation” approach, and support women in becoming stronger leaders within their families, as well as in their communities. AVAG’s objectives also include encouraging members to be collectively responsible for improving and maintaining village infrastructure through work camps and micro projects, and by increasing awareness of social issues such as women’s rights, gender and caste discrimination, as well as specific topics such as sanitation, health and education, disseminating information about and assisting SHGs in accessing credit opportunities through various government and bank programs, actively encouraging savings and providing credit through a revolving fund, and supporting income generating activities.
Many of the village women who participate in the SHGs traveled up to two hours by bus from their homes and wait patiently to receive SE sessions. With eagerness to receive help, they openly share about problems such as husbands hitting wives, mothers hitting children, giving birth to daughters instead of sons, problems with in-laws (being tormented by them or outcast), financial difficulties (especially when their husbands abuse alcohol and they are left to support the family), poverty, joblessness, “torture” by their family, witnessing suicides by hanging, being victims of crimes, and motor vehicle accidents. Their symptoms manifested as depression, fatigue, anxiety, fear, tension, rapid heartbeat, sleep disturbance, problems managing their anger, domestic violence, physical abuse of children, various somatic complaints such as chronic pain, head pain or pain in the heart, and for some, despair and extreme hopelessness that led them to seriously consider or attempt suicide as the only way out.
During the sessions, team members focus on stabilizing and empowering the women as much as possible by teaching some of the basic regulation skills presented in the workshops. The women join with us easily, and quickly grasp and embody what we offer. They have little if any difficulty orienting to the present moment as well as tracking their internal experience, and are able to regulate quite readily with some support and guidance, even in the most severe cases. This is likely due to the cultural and spiritual support to which they are connected in their daily lives and their familiarity with meditation. Their native gods and goddesses seemed to be ever present, both implicitly and explicitly in their process. Nearly all women leave their sessions feeling happier, brighter, more hopeful and with the sense they can take home the skills they learn and put them into practice.
To give you an idea of the problems the women contend with, I’ll share a bit about what I encountered when giving sessions to the more severely depressed and suicidal women from the villages.
One young woman was suicidal and depressed after being forced into an arranged marriage at the age of 16 to a much older man who was an alcoholic and beat her often. She birthed three children and lives in poverty because neither she nor her husband have jobs. At the end of her session she was more fully oriented and grounded, and appeared much less depressed.
Another woman, also severely depressed, attempted suicide twice in the past year due to ongoing conflicts with her husband and then the murder of her 10-year old daughter six months ago by a neighbor, who burned her to death with kerosene. Due to the level of shock held in the woman’s system, the work was difficult and long. However, after two sessions, she expressed her gratitude by telling our team she felt we were “goddesses who have given her back the desire to live again” and that she would never forget us. She left with bright eyes, armed with tools to help her overcome stress and anxiety.
Another woman, whose parents died when she was young, was raised by her aunt and entered an arranged marriage without a dowry. While the groom’s family originally agreed to this, they later began to demand a dowry and then outcast her as a “disgrace to the village.” Seeing no other way out, she unsuccessfully attempted suicide by trying to burn herself with kerosene. After her session, she too reported feeling refreshed and more peaceful. AVAG staff has agreed to follow up closely with these women.
You can also read more about our work with AVAG in their newsletter by following this link or pasting it into your browser.