Oju Welfare Association- securing a future for the less-privileged

woven lives

[ Tongam Rina ]

“Our greatest joy would be to find one day that there are no children and women requiring our help and services”, reads a pamphlet of Oju Welfare Association (OWA), popularly known as Oju Mission.
It is unlikely that that day would come any time soon.
The campus in B Sector, Naharlagun is still over crowded with women who are survivors of domestic violence, those who escaped child and forced marriages and children rescued from appalling labour conditions, abandoned children with special needs who no one wants to adopt.
Many survivors still have signs of physical brutality. I wonder what mental trauma they carry within them.

The lasting foundation of hope and support
Binny Yanga, the social activist and entrepreneur started OWA in 1979 to help less privileged women and children.
Yanga who was popularly known as Maya and Mummy for taking care of hundreds of less privileged children, orphans and women laid the foundation of the Association and ran it till she passed away in 2015.
Four years later, her associates feel her absence but the association is strong and efficient as ever.

                             Weaving centre               Photo courtesy: OWA

Ratan Anya today ably runs the Association as its chairperson with her team.
“We feel her (Binny Yanga) absence. When I am in a difficult situation, I often think how she would have handled the situation and that inspires me to stay strong. She will always be our inspiration”, says Anya.
It’s not always a smooth run for the organization as relatives of those who seek refuge in OWA to escape violence at home often turn up in dozens, often armed with doas to threaten Anya and her colleagues.
Being a law graduate comes in handy, Anya says as she and her team calmly recollect instances where they were just inches away from physical violence.
The Naharlagun police station is nearby and police are very helpful, she says as she showed me around the sprawling campus.
The infrastructure, which was entirely built by Binny Yanga from her private resources, is crumbling.
The Association has various wings and it’s a challenge to keep them running effectively, and yet the team strives on somehow.

Homes for the abused and abandoned
OWA has homes for children in need of care and protection and also run an orphanage, as many children have nowhere to go.
Some of the children, mostly from Assam, who were rescued from child labour do not know where they have come from. They don’t even remember their given names as they now have tribal names and surnames.
Some are runaway children with no address to go to.
Kani Nada Maling, the Chairperson of the Child Welfare Committee, Capital Complex says many children that she has sent to OWA have been assaulted physically, mentally and sexually by tribal families forcing them to run away.
I am trying to reunite these children with their families but it’s increasingly proving to be tough, she says.
Anya says that many children who have been exposed to violence struggle to cope in school as well the home.
The Children’s Home was officially sanctioned in 2015-16 but it has been run by the org since its inception.
Right now, there are 41 students, according to children home, superintendent J Tangjang.
25 of them are girls. Most children in the home are survivors of child labour and sexual assault.
Most of the children are there for temporary shelter but some have been staying since 2014, Tangjang says.
As we were at the campus, a 14 year old child labour survivor refused to go back to his parents. They will send me back to work, he says.
Many of them refuse to go back to their parents fearing that they will be sent back to the same situation from where they have escaped. So those children are given education and other skills so that they can sustain themselves.
“Many refuse to study so after basic education, we give them vocational training based on their interests so that they will have some skills to sustain themselves” Anya says.

Specialized Adoption Agency
OWA also has a Sishu Greh, a Specialized Adoption Agency (SAA) which is one of its kinds in the entire state and is registered with the Central Adoption Resource Agency (CARA).
Who are the ones that give up their children for adoption?
Mostly, teenage mothers or parents who can’t afford to raise the child.
Before a child is put up for adoption, the Child Welfare Committee certifies that the child is legally fit for adoption.
Before that there is a window where a child may be taken back by parents.
There has been an instance where the parents came to take the child back, Anya says.
Two have already been adopted. The adoption of children is through national portal CARINGS which is maintained by CARA.

Children no one wants
However, not all children have been able to find homes and new parents.
There are three children who suffer from severe mental and physical health issues, waiting for adoption.
But Anya says that it seems unlikely that they will ever be adopted since not many prospective parents are willing to take care of children with special needs.
OWA doesn’t have the necessary specialization to provide education to the children with special needs so it is forced to turn them away.
“Many parents with children with special needs come here seeking help. We need a school for them” she says.
But she has taken in children with special needs who are orphans.
I don’t have the heart to turn them away”, Anya says.
One of the children, a baby girl of around six years will go to a school which caters to children with special needs. But the fee is stiff at Rs 7000 per month.
Anya has already started seeking help for the child. The child can barely stand on her feet.
“I worry about her. So I want to ensure that she gets trained so that she is able to eat, dress and use the toilet without assistance”, Anya says.

Swadhar Greh: A place of hope for survivors of violence
The Short Stay home for women currently has 19 women.
Most of them are survivors of domestic violence, polygamy and child marriages while some have been abandoned by families.
Last year alone, there were 51 women of whom 37 have had their cases settled.
The women also receive counseling and treatment to help them heal.
One of the survivors of polygamy, a 30 year old is currently seeking treatment. She will deliver a baby soon. Because of precarious financial situation, she intends to keep the baby at the Children’s Home.
Some of women come with their children.
Recently, a woman who was a survivor of domestic violence and polygamy came with her four children.
“I admitted them to Oju Mission School and they are doing alright”, said Anya.
Another woman, a widow was forced to leave her children in the village. Anya has offered free education for the two children but it is too dangerous for the mother to go back to the village.
During their stay, women are trained on vocations that they are interested in. Most of them are trained in weaving since they already have some skills. The skills they acquire are a key to their economic sustenance once they step out of the safety of the short stay home.
Many of the survivors have left as skilled artisans.
“I have become an expert in weaving and I am confident that I will be economically independent”, says woman who is a survivor of domestic violence.
She tells me that when her case, which is in the court now is solved, she would start a business of weaving bags and wraparounds. It fetches good money and investment is low, says the woman.
Swadhar Greh is supported by Ministry of Women and Child development, GOI.

OJU craft center: towards economic sustenance
The craft centre is a sister unit of the association. Many women who are survivors of various forms of violence are trained and engaged as paid artisans once they gain the necessary skills. They go through intensive trainings helped by master trainers.
The creations, ranging from traditional scarves to wraps, jackets are fine mosaic of creativity, hard work and one that gives hope of a better future to the weavers.
The beautiful creations are sold through two emporiums; one is in the OJU campus itself while the other one is in Akashdeep, Itanagar.
The profit earned by the craft centre is major source of income for the association, which often struggles with funds.
“The OWA homes are majorly dependent on the profits made by the Oju Craft center. If there is a dip in sales, it directly affects the running of the homes”, says Anya as all earnings of the emporia are donated to the Association.

JSS: training human resources
Another major institute is Jan Shiksha Sansthan (JSS), run by an independent society but under the OWA platform. Women from socially and economically disadvantaged centre are given vocational training.
JSS, which was started in 2004 with support of MHRD, has trained over 7500 women-in tailoring, beauty culture, health care, mobile repair and weaving.
The Sansthan, which is in OWA campus, is a bustling centre of activity.
This year, the courses are set to change. Mushroom cultivation and marketing, flower arrangement, poultry, spoken skills, videography and other technical subjects are being introduced.
Among others, OWA also run a family counseling centre and women help line-181, one stop centre.

Extending a helping hand
Association is dependent on govt fund, which often takes time, and on the sales profits made by the Oju craft centre.
Individual donations are hard to come.
Some parents visit the campus to celebrate the birthdays of their children.
“Along with cake, I wish they came with utilities for the children home”, Anya laughs.
The shops give them food and other essentials on credit. Without them, our kitchen would not run, she says.
Last winter, former students of Vivekananda School gave Rs 20 thousand when we were running out of blankets, Anya says.
As I spent the day at the OWA, I could not help but wonder why so many children and women are in need of support.
In a tribal society, women are supposedly respected and children are loved. But few hours spent with the women, children, Anya and her team made me realize yet again why children and women often have to bear the brunt of poverty and patriarchy.
While I was leaving, I remembered the face of a small child who suffers from physical and mental health issue.
The moment he saw Anya, he laughed extending his tiny hands to her. I extended mine, which was promptly refused.
Soon, he was playing with superintendent Tangjang.
No one knows who he is and where he is from.
What will happen to him, I asked Anya.
We will take care of him, she said. (For those who wish to know more about OWA activities, please visit owaap.org.in)