How could there be any connection between mentally ill destitute women in India and IFCR?
In July 1997, the Australian Rotary Cricket team participated in the inaugural International Festival of Rotary Cricket at Fordingbridge, UK, along with other teams, including one from Chennai (formerly Madras), India. During this time of true Rotary fellowship, some Australian members were moved by the commitment of the Rotary Club of Madras Chenna Patna to their project known as The Banyan.
Their PP Raja Rajshekhar told of the needs of The Banyan, and how even small donations of money could help. When PP Ken Jones arrived home, his club, Albury North, sent money to the Madras Chenna Patna Club for The Banyan project.
Then in February 1999, the second International Festival of Rotary Cricket was held in Madras, with IFCR teams from New Zealand, Australia, England, Sri Lanka, and Indian districts. In the intervening time, contact had been maintained via email with Raja.
Members of these teams were invited to a club meeting where PP Ian Petherick presented a cheque for $500 from his Bundaberg Sunrise Club for The Banyan. Bundaberg Sunrise pledged more funds and sought a Matching Grant. This eventuated in 2001 with The Banyan receiving US$8000 – Bundaberg Sunrise and District 9570 each contributing $1000, Madras Chenna Patna contributed $2000 and Rotary International $4000.
The Banyan was able to purchase a cold room, washing machine and clothes dryer. As well, The Banyan has been approved to receive donations in foreign currency. During the Madras festival, an invitation to visit The Banyan was accepted by PP Brian Morgan (Rotary Club of Christchurch South, NZ) and Val, Pres. Charles Townsing (Rotary Club of Maryborough, Victoria), PP Ian Petherick and John Spedding (Rotary Club of Bundaberg Sunrise, Queensland), Ken Jones and Fiona and then 10 year old son, Tim. The visit was an unforgettable experience.
What is The Banyan? It is a registered Public Charitable Trust based in Chennai. It provides shelter and care, medication and rehabilitation for mentally ill and destitute women. The Banyan, from which the project takes its name, is an Indian fig tree, related to the Australian Moreton Bay fig, and symbolises shelter. The structure of the tree, with its aerial prop roots for support, symbolises the essential support of others who provide for its ongoing work. The motto of The Banyan is “I exist, therefore I am”.
As a rule, women in India live a fairly sheltered life. If they are destitute, homeless and mentally ill, they stand very little chance of survival. Their trauma is compounded by the harsh realities of the streets, their illness worsens and further stress is laid on their already damaged minds. Conservative estimates place the number of such women at 4 million in India as a whole.
When The Banyan was first established, there was no government program for these women as, by law, they simply did not exist,and they therefore lacked the protection of the law. The Indian Mental Health Act made no mention of them. They were subjected to the worst possible injustices and to terrible crimes of sexual harassment, physical abuse and threats of divorce/separation/abandonment.
These findings prioritised the necessity of dealing with mentally ill destitute women. Women of all ages from all over India are brought off the streets by volunteers and staff of The Banyan. Subsequently, psychiatric evaluation, medication, therapy and a clean, safe, caring environment have given these women a chance of recovery and a lease of life.
Said to be a world first, a Mental Health Court has since been established on site. More than 870 women have taken refuge in The Banyan over the last decade. Over 440 former residents, in keeping with The Banyan’s rehabilitation/restoration policy of de-institutionalisation, are now happily back with their families or self-employed.
Follow up (as far as medication and psychiatric evaluation are concerned) is undertaken for life. The ultimate concern of The Banyan is to give these mentally ill women a chance to recover, to help them become self-sufficient and to give them a future beyond the streets and the institution.
The Banyan featured in a program on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Radio National hosted by Natasha Mitchell in March 2003 as part of a series entitled “All in the Mind”. The Banyan story is also told by Kendra in her book “Out of mind, out of sight”. She says “the success of The Banyan is due to the fact that compassion lies at its very foundation”.
What can we do? Obviously money is required for daily food and medicine.
Since IFCR members visited in 1999, The Banyan lost their existing lease of their premises. Through some miracle the Government donated land for a new building.
When a group of IFCR members and partners visited the Banyan in February 2003, they were shown over this purpose built-building, 4 storeys high, now housing 280 women. Although the aim of the Banyan is to rehabilitate the women and return them to their own homes, it is recognised that this is not always achievable.
New Matching Grant project completed in 07-08 Rotary year
Rotary Cricket has done it again! Another Matching Grant has provided two brand new vehicles for The Banyan to replace the previous vehicles used for collecting women from the streets in Chennai – those old vehicles now being well past their use-by date.
Rotary Cricket members in four clubs in Australia together with RC of Madras Chenna Patna combined in this USD 20,250 project. The Australian clubs were Hawthorn in D9800, Bundaberg Sunrise in D9570, Armidale Central in D9650 and Horsham in D9780.
Club contributions to the project totalled USD 7700, District Designated Funds totalled USD 4350 and The Rotary Foundation’s matching funds contributed USD 8200.
Rotarian Raj Rajshekhar co-ordinated the project as the local representative and was present when the two vehicles were handed over to the CEO of The Banyan at a special ceremony on Friday, May 23.
Further information on The Banyan can be found at http://www.thebanyan.org
If your club would like more information on this international humanitarian project, you can email Raj at firstname.lastname@example.org. Richard Groom (RC of Mont Albert and Surrey Hills) can also be contacted by email at email@example.com.