NDSU researcher aims to empower Indian women and put an end to human trafficking
The Begunahi Foundation is an organization that works toward empowering women in low income and developing parts of India through vocational training and education.
Founder of the organization Riaz Aziz is a faculty lecturer and researcher at North Dakota State and also regularly leads study abroad trips to India.
The name of the organization, Begunahi, translates into English as “innocence” and is named as such due to the theft of the girls’ innocence, according to Aziz. As he puts it, “When education is withheld, they lose their innocence because education broadens the world.”
Aziz and his wife founded the organization in 2013 after they traveled to India, where Aziz’s father lives. While in India, they met a woman who told them about what some women face in the lower-class areas.
Some of the struggles that Aziz talked about were a lack of access to sanitary pads to handle women’s menstrual cycles, lack of access to education, being removed from education once they reached puberty so they can get married, sexual violence and living in poverty.
The organization states that it works with underprivileged women, defining underprivileged as a cumulative annual income of less than $1,000 between the family.
Shortly after the organization was working toward getting started but before they had received their 501(c)3 certification, which would officiate them as a nonprofit organization, they received a call from a friend about four girls in need. Aziz and his wife didn’t hesitate to provide assistance.
“It got started with those four girls,” Aziz said.
As Aziz stated, the problem most often faced by low-income families is somebody coming along, posing as a priest or another trusted authority figure, and telling the family that they can bring their daughter to a boarding school where she will be clothed, fed and safe.
“We have to care for the person in a holistic way.”Riaz Aziz, faculty lecturer and researcher at North Dakota State
Unfortunately, these people typically lead the young girls into the world of human trafficking, subjecting them to “life in hell,” Aziz said.
The human trafficking industry is the third largest trafficking problem globally, resulting in a $32 billion industry, and by 2030, it’s estimated it will become the second largest illegal industry, according to Aziz.
Human trafficking is a popular industry for those who choose to participate in illegal activity because unlike drugs or artillery, the other two largest global industries, the girls selected to be forced into the industry continue to make a profit for years after the initial cost of taking them.
While there are plenty of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working in impoverished portions of India, very few focus on college-aged women, which sets the Begunahi Foundation apart. “We choose to go where NGOs usually do not,” Aziz said.
Ruchi Joshi, an NDSU Ph.D. candidate, New Delhi native and member of the foundation’s board of trustees, has seen what some of these women experience firsthand.
To make things more difficult, NGOs in India don’t typically have the best reputations. The Begunahi Foundation, however, is completely transparent in its funding and communication.
Another hurdle they have to overcome is the distribution of funds. In the United States, a scholarship is given, usually in the form of a check, and the recipient is sent on their way.
In India, however, the foundation must think about how the girls are getting to school, as public transportation doesn’t exist everywhere, the problem of harassment if they walk to school or an access point for public transportation and the ability to communicate with the foundation.
For the women who don’t wish to go to college, the organization offers vocational training, such as sewing, so that the women can become self-sufficient and empowered.
To Joshi, the hardest part can be communication, especially with time zone differences and language barriers, making it difficult to build a meaningful connection with the women.
The foundation provides every woman with a smartphone to solve the problem of communication, and they can sometimes arrange alternative housing or special transportation for the women.
Both Joshi and Aziz use the free smartphone app “WhatsApp” regularly to communicate with the girls back in India.
Smartphones help the women, who Aziz and other in the foundation refer to as “Beti” (bay-tee), which translates to “daughter,” communicate with the foundation members. This communication sparked another service through the program: providing sanitary pads.
Sanitary pads are hard to come by, according to Aziz. Many women use alternative methods for dealing with their period. Some women go and collect long grasses, fasten them to their underpants with some string or easily bendable twigs and add ash from a fire pit to absorb the blood during menstruation, Joshi said.
To Joshi, the biggest thing the organization does for the women it has served and those it continues to serve is provide social, economic and psychological freedom, noting that many of these women are the first people in their family to attend college.
By doing so, the organization shows these women that they don’t have to be just a wife or just a mother; they are capable of more than just those two things, Joshi said.
Through everything the organization does, Aziz said he stands by the following sentiment, “We have to care for the person in a holistic way,” meaning the organization can’t just focus on education or just access to sanitary menstrual supplies or vocational training or addressing harassment. They have to do it all.
Despite the work the foundation has done, Aziz said he continues to strive for more. After one of the women the foundation has helped graduated from college, receiving her undergraduate degree, Aziz offered to buy her a graduation gift. Her response? A toilet, a basic level of privacy many people in the U.S. commonly have access to. Aziz noted that he hopes that all the women his foundation helps can one day have access to such privacy and dignity.
As it stands now, women in India that do not receive a formal education have less than a 25 percent chance of sending their children to receive higher education. In contrast, women who have received higher education have more than a 90 percent chance of sending their children to receive a higher education.
The end goal for the organization, according to Aziz, is that these women become part of the circle that will go out and demand education options for other women and girls, thus empowering women like them.
There will be a fundraising event for the foundation in April, and 100 percent of donations go directly to the women they help. All members of the foundation work for free, and all costs that are not directly affecting the women are paid right out of the pocket of Aziz.