India: Local Woman

Coorg Organization of Rural Development (CORD) is committed to community development in the Southern part of Karnataka State in India. Volunteer in India with an organization that  is sensitive to the social segregation, economic exploitation and cultural alienation of the poor. As a volunteer, you will be immersed in the culture of the indigenous tribes with whom you work.


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kolkata new light


New Light is a secular nonprofit charitable trust that has a night-shelter to protect and educate young girls, children and women at high risk through safe shelters, educational opportunities, recreational facilities, health care and legal aid. As a volunteer, you have the potential to provide a variety of much needed services such as teaching, nursing, performance artistry and business development. Watch a short video from Nicolas Kristof’s Half the Sky about Urmi Basu and New Light. 

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Karnataka boasts palm-fringed beaches, Maharaja’s palaces and ancient sculptured temples, the largest Tibetan settlement outside of Tibet, wildlife sanctuaries, scenic hill ranges, and India’s “Silicon Valley,” Bangalore. Located in the south of the country, Karnataka is surrounded by the Arabian Sea to the west and the states of Goa, Maharastra, Andra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala. The state was created in 1956 from the former state of Mysore, a “princely state” of the British India, and renamed in 1976.


The climate varies from region to region, but October through March is generally pleasant throughout the entire state, except during a few spells of rain affecting the southeastern part of the state from October to December. April and May are hot and very dry, with oppressive weather during June due to intense humidity and high temperature. While still humid, July, August, and September are manageable because of reduced daytime temperatures.


The fifty-three million people of Karnataka are as varied as its landscapes. In the north dwell the Lingayats, followers of a twelfth-century Hindu saint; in the south, the rich farming communities of Vokkaligas; along the coast, fishing communities whose ancestors traded with ancient Mesopotamia, Persia, and Greece. The legacy of the Portuguese lingers in the coastal city of Mangalore where Christianity made inroads in the sixteenth century. The tribal communities, or Adivasi, live mostly in the north and west. CORD works mainly with tribal communities living in southern Karnataka. The literacy rate in the state is 66.6% with 76.1% of males and 56.9% of females being literate.


Kannada, the official and most widely spoken language in Karnataka, has a rich literary tradition. English, the medium of education in many schools, and Hindi are also commonly used. Urdu is spoken by the Muslim population. Other languages in the state are the south Indian languages of Tamil and Telegu as well as Marathi, the state language of bordering Maharastra.


Successive Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslims rulers controlled the region leaving a legacy of cultural richness and architectural masterpieces. The opulent Mysore Palace, home of the Maharaja of the princely state of Mysore, recalls the midpoint of the British Raj. With its many temples and palaces, the deserted city of Hampi in northern Karnataka offers a glimpse of the extravagant wealth of the spice and cotton trade. Great saints, reformers, poets, and writers have left their deep imprint on the heritage of Karnataka. The traditional arts of dance, classical music, and drama are highly evolved. Exquisite handicrafts including silk weavings, sandalwood, ivory, and stone carvings, metal ware, and red clay tiles of Mangalore attest to the keen aesthetic tradition in the state. South Indian food—dosas (a crepe made from rice and served with side dishes), idlis (steamed black lentil and rice patties served with chutneys or other accompaniments), and thalis (rice, surrounded by several bowls of vegetables and sauces and eaten with wheat flatbread)—are known the world over. Karnatakan specialties such as bisi bele bath, a delicacy of rice seasoned with lentils, spices, and tamarind are sure to pique the palate.

More recent achievements in Karnataka focus on information technology innovation and expansion. The tree-lined boulevards of Bangalore, the capital of the state and India’s “byte basket,” house some of the country’s most prolific and important research and development centers.


Most Karnatakans are Hindu. Eleven percent of the population is Muslim; four percent are Christian. Small minorities practice Jainism, Buddhism, and an assortment of other religions. The term Hindu covers a number of religious sect ranging from monotheists to polytheists in various degrees. Religion is central to the daily lives and societal expectations of villagers.

Social Issues

Social conditions tend to be better in south India, with women there generally exercising greater freedom in movement and autonomy in household decisions than their counterparts in north India. In addition, Karnataka is one of the most educationally advanced states in India. Yet, the social problems that plague India, including poverty, gender and caste discrimination, early marriages, and domestic violence, are common in Karnataka. Over the last several decades, NGOs, like CORD, have formed and are working to empower women, tribal communities, and other disadvantaged groups in the state. By having access to basic services, such as health care, water, and sanitation, and livelihood and skills training, these groups can take charge of their lives and direct their futures.

The Future of Karnataka

As a state enjoying educational achievement and more progressive attitudes than in other parts of India, Karnataka has great potential to address its social problems. The wealth of Bangalore, which currently does not trickle down to the poor in the city, let alone the state, could be tapped to provide more social services. The efforts of NGOs, like CORD, to equip the disadvantaged with tools to improve the quality of their lives and to encourage their collective organization bodes well for the future of Karnataka.


Mayapur is a significant pilgrimage center, attracting devotees from around the world to its many temples. The landscape is one of lush green paddy fields; colorful shrines; the meandering River Ganges; and a skyline of temple spires. Rural Bengali communities are traditionally groups of small villages within walking distance, with mixed Hindu and Muslim populations. These are villages where life continues today much as it has for hundreds of years.


In West Bengal, about three-quarters of the population live in villages; the remaining quarter living in urban areas and more than half reside in greater Calcutta. Calcutta is considered an intellectual capital. Poets, thinkers and film directors of international renown hail from this city.


A land of aesthetics and political activists, West Bengal is famous for its eminent writers, poets, artists, spiritualists, social reformers, freedom fighters, and revolutionaries. West Bengal also has a rich history of crafts, particularly cotton and silk weaving. Vibrant festivals are held throughout the year.

Bengali is the main language of the state, but Hindi is also widely understood. Other languages include Santhali (a tribal dialect), Urdu (primarily the language of Muslims), and Nepali. Small minorities speak Oraon (a tribal dialect) and English. English, together with Bengali, is the language of administration, and English is widely used for business purposes.


More than three fourths the population practice Hinduism, most of the remainder being Muslim. Throughout the state, Buddhists, Christians, Jainas, and Sikhs constitute a small minority.

The term Hindu covers a number of religious sect ranging from monotheists to polytheists in various degrees. Religion is central to the daily lives and societal expectations of villagers.

Women’s Issues

Despite India’s substantial social and economic progression since the country’s independence in 1947, Indian women continue to hold a subordinate role in modern society. Indian society is extremely hierarchical, wherein people are ranked according to their caste. Even today, one’s caste is directly related to his or her class, wealth, power, and occupation. Additionally, India is patriarchal. Within each caste, women are less valued than men.

While cultural expectations vary from region to region, in general women are expected to be chaste and particularly modest, care for the children and elders, maintain the household, and obey men. Female children are regarded as a liability, and are married off through arranged marriages in their early teen years. Molestation, rape, and domestic violence are common, but mostly go unreported. Fortunately, Southern India and large cities seem to be working toward gender equality. For example, Kerala boasts a 91% literacy rate (the highest in India).

India’s patriarchal system has compounding effects in the rural north (West Bengal), where most people are designated to a lower caste. Rural West Bengali women have to combat patriarchy and economic discrimination. In most rural areas, there is a lack of access to education and health care. They cannot afford to send their children to school, and if a family does raise the necessary funds, they will generally send the male child. Thus, continuing the cycle of poverty and powerlessness for women. In rural West Bengal, public maternity and child-care is virtually non-existent. According to Sri Mayapur Vikas Singha (SMVS), 70-100% of women have unhygienic home births in West Bengal villages, due to lack of hospitals and health clinics. Even though rural women are obligated to the home and the care of children, they also must work to survive.

The situation of women in the workforce, particularly those of a lower caste, creates a paradoxical complication. For poor families, it is necessary for women to contribute economically, but women’s participation in employment outside the home is viewed as “slightly inappropriate, subtly wrong, and definitely dangerous to their chastity and womanly virtue” (Dunlop and Velkoff, 1999. P. 2). Rural women’s work is limited because they cannot leave home in search of work in the cities (as men do); they are still expected to raise the children and care for the husband’s parents. Consequently, many rural West Bengali women work in the informal sector as agricultural laborers, domestic servants, and as vegetable and fish sellers in the markets. The average income in rural West Bengal is Rs 30-40 (less than $1) per day. Compared to Indian men, rural women are generally employed in lower-skilled, lower-paid positions resulting in no right to land or capital.

Over the past 50 years, NGOs have formed to address Indian women’s issues, but there is still much progress to be made. Today, poor women are finding power in collectively organizing into unions and cooperatives. As a group, rural women can lobby against discriminating and exploitative work practices, increase their chances of receiving grants and loans, and gain access to health care and vocational training. Many Indian women are skilled artisans and have been able to make a living wage through fair trade cooperatives, as opposed to using their skills in factories. As more Indian women pursue higher education and leadership positions, they are helping to transform cultural norms and laws that impede gender equality.

The Future of West Bengal

The potential for sustainable development in Mayapur is great. The people possess many talents and applicable skills, and are eager to accept support and assistance. Together we can develop rural micro enterprises, marketing and business training, health care facilities and awareness, educational opportunities, and improve the quality of life.

Map of India

Karnataka has distinct regional landscapes: a narrow fertile coastal strip to the west through which several rivers run; the Western Ghats, a biodiversity hotspot, with wet slopes and a narrow strip of dense tropical forests; the arid Deccan Plateau to the east; and the southwest hills and valleys of the Kodagu district, where CORD is located. The state claims five national parks and 25 wildlife sanctuaries, and grows coffee along the border with Kerala.

The headquarters of Coorg Organisation for Rural Development (CORD), is located in Kushalnagar, a town of 13,000 people in southwestern Karnataka. The Bylakuppe settlement for Tibetan refugees is nearby in Mysore district.

West Bengal has three international boundries: Bhutan, Nepal, and Bangladesh. West Bengal has two natural divisions. The Himalayan north, comprising the districts of Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri and Cooch Bihar, and the alluvial plain that lies south. West Bengal is essentially a flat plain; a large portion of that being the delta of the Ganges river.

The state of West Bengal is situated in the North Eastern region of India and extends from the Himalayan Mountains to the Bay of Bengal. Mayapur is a rural settlement located 65 miles north of Kolkata (Calcutta) in the state of West Bengal.

Quick Facts

Climate: varies from tropical monsoon in south to temperate in north

Current Environmental Issues: deforestation; soil erosion; overgrazing; desertification; air pollution from industrial effluents and vehicle emissions; water pollution from raw sewage and runoff of agricultural pesticides; tap water is not potable throughout the country; huge and growing population is overstraining natural resources

Population below poverty line: 25%

Life Expectancy: 66.8 years

Literacy (age 15 and over can read and write): male: 73.4%, female: 47.8%

Refugees and Internally Displaced Peoples (IDPs):
refugees (country of origin): 77,200 (Tibet/China); 69,609 (Sri Lanka); 9,472 (Afghanistan)
IDPs: at least 600,000 (about half are Kashmiri Pandits from Jammu and Kashmir)