First-years receive Projects for Peace grant to support NGO in India

First-year students Natacha Danon, left, and Olivia Krishnaswami are sharing a Davis Projects for Peace grant for a project in India. Photograph by Phyllis Graber Jensen/Bates College.

First-year students Natacha Danon, left, and Olivia Krishnaswami are sharing a Davis Projects for Peace grant for a project in India. Photograph by Phyllis Graber Jensen/Bates College.

Two first-year students from the Seattle area have received a $10,000 Davis Projects for Peace grant to stimulate economic development and support a rural education initiative in a community in India.

The project devised by Olivia Krishnaswami and Natacha Danon will support humanitarian efforts in the district of Kanchipuram, in the state of Tamil Nadu, by marketing to U.S. customers silk scarves made by local women.

The initiative is one of 100 initiatives supported this year by the Projects for Peace program. At age 104, founder and philanthropist Kathryn W. Davis funds the program to encourage college students to undertake innovative, meaningful projects that promote peace in the world.

Krishnaswami and Danon are partnering with the Rural Institute for Developing Education, which supports marginalized people in nearly 200 rural villages in Kanchipuram. RIDE provides “bridge schools” to help move children from labor into education, self-help groups for women and training for entrepreneurial and vocational success, and it also monitors compliance with child labor regulations.

“The people in RIDE have this vision of the community as something stronger than what it is now and they are working to get there,” says Krishnaswami.

How will her and Danon’s project advance the cause of peace? In the most basic sense, peace is the absence of violence, explains Krishnaswami.

“But there’s this greater idea of peace meaning that people in a society are getting what they need — food, water, education. And with this broader sense of peace comes stability, and less likelihood that a community will fall prey to violence.”

Kanchipuram is known for its specialty silk saris, the women’s garments that consist of a single strip of cloth that is wrapped and draped around the body. Many women manufacture the saris at home.

But the sari industry is linked with perpetuating disproportionate levels of poverty for women and children, especially for those from traditionally lower castes. Because gender bias discourages women from working outside the home, factories often look to children as a labor force, keeping them from getting an education and locking them into a future of poorly paying work.

“Exclusion of women from the workforce has led to the rise of child labor as an alternative to boosting family income,” the Bates students explain in their Projects for Peace proposal. “With children working rather than attending school, human capital levels stagnate.

“The development of human capital is crucial for a community to uplift itself out of poverty and social inequality.”

The Projects for Peace grant will enable Krishnaswami and Danon to employ RIDE self-help groups to create scarves in the styles of the saris that they already produce. They will market the scarves in the United States, dividing proceeds equally among business expenses (including payment to the scarf makers), product and market development, and funds for RIDE programs.

To distribute the scarves, Krishnaswami and Danon will recruit sales representatives on college and high school campuses, hold benefit concerts and branch out to the retail sector through local businesses in Seattle and Maine — including the restaurant Mother India in Lewiston.

They estimate the project will initially employ more than 100 women and generate $3,300 for RIDE. The short-term goal is to sell 500 scarves by the end of summer 2012, but the project is designed to become sustainable over time.

Overall the project will create employment opportunities for women, utilize preexisting skills in an environmentally conscious way and support the programs of RIDE through funds and awareness.

The project originated with Krishnaswami, who implemented a program to sell canvas bags for RIDE in high school. “I’ve had this dream for a long time. I got so passionate about the idea of it.

“I had the idea that maybe it could grow, but I didn’t know how to do that. So getting this grant has really kick-started it for me.”

Krishnaswami is a double major in politics and women and gender studies. Danon expects to major in politics or anthropology.

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