Agents of Social Change

How can we make a lasting impact?

Mia Rossi,

As an upper middle-class Indian woman lucky enough to marry someone she loved without worry that she’d have a dowry and be married off at a young age, Chitra Shah considered herself a feminist in the name of all those who didn’t have that luxury in India. 

Shah grew up in India knowing she wanted to change the world, leading her to study social work before setting out to do just that. She told Northampton Community College (NCC) her story when she visited the U.S. in September.

Once she met the man she wanted to marry, her life changed temporarily. Her family was a bit more liberal, but her husband came from a strict conservative family that had expectations of a woman. “I can’t cook for anything,” joked Shah, as her husband went to work while she took care of their home. Her husband took notice of a change in Shah and suggested she see a psychiatrist for help with depression.

“You’re not depressed. You’re just a bored housewife,” her psychiatrist told her frankly, “If you want to make a difference, help me at my social work clinic for special needs children.”

The psychiatrist took her along to a home visit for a young special needs girl in her teens. She was found tied up to a chair in a room where her single mother left her for over 8 hours a day while she worked. When the mother was pressed about why she did this, she told Shah she was married off when she was 15, and when she had her child who had a disability, her husband left. Her own family wouldn’t take her back because her daughter was different. She needed money to support herself and her daughter, but she couldn’t afford childcare. When the woman had left her daughter alone in the past, she was raped twice before the age of 13, resulting in pregnancy both times. Tying her up was the only solution this mother found to prevent her daughter from being raped or molested again.

“I was shocked, but the biggest reality that set in was that there was no guilt attached to what she had done,” Shah said of the mother, who felt she had no other options, “This is when I knew, something had to change.”

One of the questions Shah faced was why so many Indian women were giving birth to babies with disabilities? Several factors contribute including lack of pre and post-natal care, malnutrition of the women, and more. Many women are treated like second class citizens. “In fact, the best of what is cooked at home is given to the man because he needs to stay strong for the work he does outside of the house,” said Shah. Yet the fact that consanguinity is socially acceptable is also having an impact. Many women are married off to their cousins or siblings.

There are over l. 3 billion people in India, and 2% have special needs with only .1% being served. Many Indian people of certain religions feel that a child is born with a disability as a sin against God. Beliefs include the child is born of a mother who has greatly sinned, and she is paying for her sins. The father will leave his family. A child is often abandoned, Shah recalls seeing children who were thrown in the trash. Mothers who choose to keep their children do not have enough money or time to transport and send their children to care facilities while they work. 

Shah created a solution. She opened up Satya Special School, the largest rehabilitation program for special needs children in Pondicherry, India. She started the school with 20 children who she transported to and from home, not requiring payment for care at the school or transportation. The non-profit allowed children to live their lives more fully, with enriching programs. Now, the organization has multiple locations with 950 children and a handful of adults there for skills training for employment.

“For the first time, twenty of my children have even gone on to community colleges,” Shah boasted.

It hasn’t always been a smooth ride. She's had people tell her they wanted to kill her for educating their communities about women’s needs and rights. Shah has had to lobby for funding, particularly to doctors and politicians, and recently she even broke into the corporate world with donations from Bank of America.

“My goal is to actually begin getting men to defend their wives to their family. This is not the mother’s fault.”

As Shah closed, another social entrepreneur by the name of Dr. Raj Rajagopal, who spoke at NCC on Sept. 20, discussed how he supports organizations like Shah’s. “Like a bee, I gather up all of the pollen from each of these organizations and people I meet, finding their best qualities, and I create connections pulling together the pollen to make the flower, our world, flourish.”

Rajagopal created a project called the India Winterim Program in which students from the University of Iowa, where he was a professor in the Geographical and Sustainability Sciences Department, visit India to work with clinics, hospitals and other community projects in order to bring about change and promote global awareness and exchange between countries. Through his work, Rajagopal and Shah have formed a strong bond.

These two very exceptional guests inspire transformation in communities and give us hope for a better future.