By Suzanne York,, Feb. 21, 2012

Recently I had the privilege of meeting with Dr. Prakash Tyagi, a medical doctor and director of Gramin Vikas Vigyan Samiti (GRAVIS), a rural empowerment organization based in the state of Rajasthan, India. Dr. Tyagi was visiting the San Francisco Bay Area, courtesy of the International Development Exchange (IDEX).

The mission of GRAVIS, grounded in Gandhian philosophy, is to promote sustainable rural development via capacity building, community and women’s empowerment, social justice, and protecting the environment. I am familiar with the work of GRAVIS, having written previously on how the organization empowers rural communities through employing traditional knowledge of taankas, a water storage system.

GRAVIS works in the Thar Desert in western Rajasthan. It is the world’s most densely populated desert ecosystem, with 23 million people. Life is tough, with unpredictable rainfall, environmental degradation, climatic extremes, resource scarcity, few health clinics, and oppressive social standards for women. GRAVIS incorporates a holistic approach, focusing on water security, food security, health, and education, and reaches approximately 1 million people.

Dr. Tyagi explained how GRAVIS works to overcome the difficulties facing women in the Thar Desert by making them equal partners. They are guided by the idea of “sitting on one carpet”, meaning equal voice/equal rights for men and women. Much of this work is done through Self-Help Groups, which aid women in life skills and economic self-reliance. Projects include support for seed banks, micro-credit lending, and nutrition.

Overall, GRAVIS takes a life-cycle approach to meeting the needs of girls and mothers, and promotes leadership development, health education, maternal health, and girls education. Currently, the organization has set up 90 primary schools to help increase girls’ enrollment.

We discussed family planning, a sensitive issue in rural areas. GRAVIS has put much effort toward prevention, capacity building, and the training of village health workers. I asked Dr. Tyagi about the “mother-in-law” effect, as this particular family member has culturally had much influence on births in India (with a preference for grandsons). Though still an obstacle, Dr. Tyagi said they were slowly changing deep-rooted beliefs, especially by involving men in family planning, and by improving literacy. GRAVIS states on their website that village health workers, who come from rural areas, have the trust of their respective communities, which enables them to overcome some of the village skepticism regarding modern medicine and health practices.

Another cultural barrier to overcome is that of child marriage, a still-too-common practice in Rajasthan, and one rooted in social poverty. Official government figures show the percentage of girls getting married before the age of eighteen is 68% in Rajasthan. Dr. Tyagi said that their Self-Help Groups work in villages to change attitudes and beliefs. GRAVIS has been able to reduce rates of child marriage by empowering women, educating girls, and improving economic opportunities.

Lastly, our discussion touched upon overcoming desertification, overgrazing, erosion, and other environmental problems. GRAVIS works with communities through locally-based organizations to create community forests and pastures. The forests – called orans – are considered sacred, dedicated to a local god or goddess and protected by ancient laws in each community. According to the social entrepreneurial group Ashoka, the land is sacred because it provides villages with grazing land and pasture for livestock, produce and medicinal plants such as berries, roots and herbs, and also fuel, timber and water. Traditionally, orans allowed for equal access of all people to resources. GRAVIS is working with communities to protect more orans in the Thar Desert region.

The short time I spent with Dr. Tyagi gave me hope and inspiration that by taking a holistic, traditional, and empowerment-based approach to the critical issues facing not only Rajasthan, but also much of the world, we can create positive change.

Suzanne York is a writer with the Institute for Population Studies /

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