We believe that peace and growth can only be achieved if a society empowers all its citizens equally. From the time the first Sri Lankan refugees arrived on Indian shores to this day, one of OfERR’s top priorities has been the empowerment of women. Our extensive programs focus on financial independence, personal safety, creating support systems and networks, and ensuring equal access to education and employment opportunities. Our first interactions with women refugees involved providing basic needs by collecting and distributing essential supplies, following which professional counseling was provided to those in the camps to help them cope with their mental agony. The government provided an allowance to the families in refugee camps and continues to do so, while both men and women had to take up employment to supplement this income and support their children. Several women refugees fell prey to scams by travel agents who promised them jobs in the Middle East, while others borrowed heavily from money-lenders and later attempted suicide when the debts mounted. OfERR devised a three-pronged plan to protect these women’s interests by providing free vocational training to women as tailors and poultry farmers, creating a women’s support group that helped them plan their savings and launching crèches where babies and children could be kept safe during the workday.
In 1994, OfERR opened tailoring units in the four regional offices of Chennai, Trichy, Nellai and Erode, employing the women who received training in tailoring, with priority being given to women who were school dropouts, widows and victims of physical, mental and sexual violence. The women received orders from both within and outside camps from their Indian neighbours, fostering a better understanding between the two groups. When the Tamil Nadu government introduced the concept of SHGs (self help groups) in 1997, OfERR took steps to replicate this model for the benefit of refugee women in camps. Each of these groups is a voluntary association of 15 to 20 female members women from similar socio-economic backgrounds. The SHG promotes small savings among its members and these savings are deposited in the bank as a common fund in the name of the SHG. This fund is available to the members in times of emergency as loans at a nominal interest rate. Members can also apply for loans to start small businesses or pay for college education. This system effectively made it impossible for women to be exploited by money lenders. Today, there are 485 SHGs with 7,180 women members motivated by OfERR in 104 government-run refugee camps across Tamil Nadu, with a turnover of nearly 29 million INR during the past financial year.
On observing the alarming number of domestic and sexual violence cases in refugee camps, OfERR also set up Women Inclusive Networks (WIN) to function as a collective voice against gender based violence and provide a platform to report abuse and seek protection and justice. In 2008, OfERR also arranged for a series of self-defense workshops by Mysore-based martial arts expert Ashwin Mohan of Close Quarters Combat (CQC). His program titled ‘GITT’ – Give It To Them – trains women on how to overcome shock during an assault and defend themselves from their attacker, how to assist another individual who is being assaulted and the legal procedures to report sexual violence. OfERR was astounded and proud when each workshop participant trained coworkers, family members and friends to use these techniques. Additionally, OfERR also organizes workshops on child protection, alcohol de-addiction and women’s rights.The seeds of change were planted several years ago and the fruits of our labour can be seen now when women receive the government allowance on behalf of their families, and have an equal say in finances and family decisions. Women have also been instrumental in reducing cases of migrant smuggling and continue to be our greatest strength and inspiration.