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Podcast: India, Gender & The Naive Enquirer

Last year, one study named India "the worst country in the world" in which to be a woman. HELEN MORGAN has spent the last four years in the country's rural north, where she trained community workers on gender violence and counselling skills. When she got back home to New Zealand, she joined us to reflect on her experiences, and to tell us why - despite the headlines - she found considerable cause for hope. Listen to the full podcast here, or read the highlights below.

Helen's work in India began with some uncertainty. "The first year was very tough," she told us; the hospital she was working with in Uttar Pradesh didn't have a community mental health team, and when she started preparing training material she "didn't have anything prepared, any idea of what anybody wanted really". But she found her feet, and thinks that other people doing community work overseas often have a similar experience: "you have to create your own job, really."

Her job was training community health workers on mental health, gender violence, sexuality, and alcohol addiction. She began by teaching them about mental illness, and its place in a cycle involving domestic violence and addiction. She then taught them counselling, and how to communicate and listen without judgement. "They just really soaked up the information and took it out into the field. When I went back, I was shown all these pictures of families who were living a totally different life because of the counselling they were able to do. "

It was important that the health workers she was training were working in the villages they came from. Personal relationships and knowledge of the local area led to a greater impact, Helen believes. In addition to counselling, the health workers set up support groups of community leaders who were able to monitor things like domestic violence. It made possible a job that initially seemed insurmountable to her. "I just didn't know how they could possibly succeed in doing it but succeed they did, and continue to do so."

Helen's training methods centred on the importance of listening. She told us: "when someone is prepared to actually listen - along with confidentiality, which is absolutely essential - it's really powerful stuff." While training community health workers, she was teaching them "to support people by just listening to them, and allowing people to find their own solutions." In terms of domestic violence and alcohol abuse, she says, "it's the men who are being listened to that have realised the error of their ways."

She asked the health workers she was training to use what they had learned with their families at home. She found that the results were impressive, and she told us the story of one person who benefited: "One man in particular I'll never forget - he said 'it's changed my life. Learning all these things has changed my life, it's changed my family life, I have a wonderful relationship with my wife now, we get on really well, we discuss everything together, we make our decisions together.' And I saw that as a huge breakthrough."

She gave us her advice on doing local community work as an outsider. One piece of advice she received stayed with her: "one of my colleagues from a few years back used to use the term 'naive enquirer'. I think it's one of the most valuable things I've ever been taught as far as listening goes." Again, listening, openness and curiosity is the starting point. "I didn't go to impose my beliefs."

Listen to other episodes of How To Build Community here.


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