New program plants seeds of hope in India

By Melissa Allison

The Seattle Times

Published: Sunday, April 7 2013 11:55 p.m. MDT

RURAL WEST BENGAL, India (MCT) — Mamata Barui hopes her garden can save her.

When the 16-year-old is not cleaning, cooking or otherwise caring for her four younger siblings, she waters and weeds patches of garlic, radishes and green chilies. She harvests bay leaves and tends pumpkins, beans and bottle gourds that grow near her family's cow shed.

Mamata's garden produces all the vegetables her family eats. She hopes the surplus will generate enough cash to stop her parents from marrying her off.

"I feel afraid," she said. "They say, 'You're not doing anything tangible.' If I can sell whatever I grow, they might think of delaying my marriage."

Mamata got that idea – and her gardening skills – from a weekly girls group she helps lead.

The group is part of a pilot project of the Seattle-based nonprofit Landesa, a new twist on that organization's decades-long effort to use access to land as a way of pulling people out of poverty in India, China, Africa and elsewhere.

The project, underwritten by the Nike Foundation and a private donor, is part of a new girls' empowerment program run by the Indian government. In 299 villages in far northeast India, Landesa's program has taught roughly 7,800 girls how to garden in hopes of increasing their economic value to their families.

The idea is that if they are considered assets rather than extra mouths to feed, the girls might complete their educations and break out of the poverty cycle. Even if they do not, they will know how to grow food on even small plots of land, improving their nutrition and that of their children.

The gardening skills also come with extensive lessons in women's rights, which Landesa hopes will encourage girls to fight back against child marriage, as well as rape, prostitution and other forms of abuse.

If India decides to go ahead with Landesa's gardening project, it is expected to roll out nationally with the rest of the girls' empowerment program next year.

Girls are "the next generation, in terms of land rights," said Gregory Rake, who directs Landesa's work in India. "Mamata knows somebody else will ultimately make a decision over her life, but at least now she knows there is a different way."

Although child marriage is illegal in India, almost half of girls under age 18 are married. They typically stop going to school and often have children at young ages, which compromises the health of the girls and their babies.

The U.S. State Department says India is a destination for child-sex tourism, and UNICEF estimates 1.2 million Indian children are prostitutes or enslaved.

Landesa faced opposition to the girls project in one predominantly Muslim community, just as it faced resistance in some parts of India to educational programs that discuss women's legal right to inherit land. The nonprofit does not force communities to accept its programs.

In general, Landesa wins the ear of officials in India and elsewhere who want to give land to destitute families to help alleviate poverty. Governments often ask Landesa for help in identifying landless families, which can be difficult because many are not registered.

Landesa also helps to change land laws and to match families with land. In some cases, the land is government-controlled - for example, old colonial land in India. In others, it belongs to landowners who agree to sell it at market rates.

And Landesa helps poor people register the land, so it cannot be stolen by companies or developers.

Although the nonprofit has a low profile in its hometown of Seattle, many consider Landesa the world's premier nonprofit group advocating for land rights. The group estimates its efforts have led to more than 100 million families having secure rights to land.

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