Lighting the Spark of Change

By Gaurisha Malhotra and Harina Oberoi

July 12, 2022

Women standing in a circle and lighting candles as part of a training session in a village.
During a Cornerstones training in Bihar, India, participants light candles and pass on the flame to others as a mark of sharing the gift of knowledge. Photo by Pranab K. Aich/ Heifer International.

Draped in a traditional Indian saree and carrying a satchel of charts and folders, Chhoti Kumari leaves her home every day and strides the village trails of Bihar, India to reach groups of women and girls eagerly awaiting her arrival. Chhoti is their window to the world of ideas, growth, self-reliance and empowerment: Chhoti is a community trainer.

Community trainers are Heifer’s frontline workers, trained and mentored by Heifer experts to become agents of change in their communities. They are dynamic individuals, often women, who belong to the same region, are well-versed in its social and cultural beliefs and are passionate about channeling development in their communities.

“When I joined, I received many trainings,” shared Chhoti, who was recruited for the role by a Heifer India project in 2020. “I was trained in Heifer’s Cornerstones, animal management, self-help group management and others. Now, I take these trainings to other women in my village. And I want to do this work because I want the women of my village to become self-reliant.”

A women holding a learning guide and conducting a training session with a group of women in a village.
Chhoti Kumari leading a training session on Heifer’s 12 Cornerstones with a self-help group in Lagma village, Bihar, India. Photo by Pranab K. Aich/ Heifer International.

As a community trainer, Chhoti organizes women into self-help groups, empowers them through agriculture and business training, and helps them engage in collective business. But this work is not without its difficulties. “There are differences,” Chhoti shared. “There is discrimination also on the basis of gender and caste.”

Bihar reels under the weight of a deeply entrenched caste system, a social structure in which a person’s relationships, occupation and value in society are determined by their place in the hierarchy. Although prohibited by law, the practice of caste continues to fuel social exclusion and influence one’s access to opportunities, especially in the communities of rural Bihar.

The effects of the caste system on women are exacerbated by restrictive gender norms. These prejudices rarely allow women and girls to pursue their interests and harness their potential.

A woman holding a learning guide and addressing a group of women during a training session.
Chhoti explains the concept of leadership and vision building while leading a training session in her village. Photo by Pranab K. Aich/ Heifer International.

In this context, community trainers like Chhoti play an important role in bringing women together and implementing Heifer’s community development model, which instills the skills and values communities need to rise above bias and build social cohesion for shared growth.

“Many women were reluctant to join the group initially,” Chhoti said. “I went to them, explained the purpose of this group and how it will function so they are fully aware of how it can benefit them — then, they gradually joined the group.”

And she is witnessing a change in the community. “Now, a group of 20 women belonging from different castes sit together, eat together, learn together and they know they will grow together,” she said. “If they earn and save, they will be able to move forward in life. They will send their children to schools, have a decent shelter over their heads and will stay healthy and safe.”

This collective growth helps individuals and communities challenge other prejudices that hold them back, one of the strongest being gender-based discrimination in education. Though India overall ranks low in literacy rates, the gap in male and female literacy in Bihar is even more unnerving at roughly 57% and 29%, respectively. While many boys get opportunities to attend school, girls are often assigned duties of taking care of their younger siblings and assisting with household chores, due both to gender roles and inadequate household income.

A woman standing with hands, eyes and mouth tied with a ribbon while participating in a training activity.
Chhoti leads an activity exploring the restrictions imposed on women in Bihar through a physical representation. Photo by Pranab K. Aich/ Heifer International. 

When trainers like Chhoti address these inequities during the sessions, participants can contemplate their own ingrained beliefs.

“Through gender training, the motive is to help individuals identify discrimination and violence. They are able to reflect that what they had accepted as tradition and community practice is actually rooted in discrimination. Otherwise, it appears very normal to them. They accept it without question,” said Nimisha Bhagawaty, program officer at Heifer India.

When Chhoti started conducting Heifer’s gender training in her community, she started uprooting these prejudices. “Earlier, the belief was boys should go to school and girls should stay at home,” she shared. “All these beliefs are now shifting. They acknowledge that girls and boys are equal and should be treated that way in all aspects.”

By confronting these challenges head-on and changing lives as a community trainer, Chhoti is having a ripple effect in rural Bihar, inspiring individuals above and beyond Heifer’s projects. One such individual is 18-year-old Chandni, a girl from the remote village of Dethua where Chhoti conducts trainings, who now aspires to have a career in medicine.

Chandni lives with her parents and siblings; the family farms a small piece of land as their major source of livelihood. Since childhood, Chandni has seen domestic responsibilities passed to young girls — often crushing their ambitions and dreams. “Let the girl turn 16-17 and she will [be] asked to get married,” she said. “Nobody considers how the girl might live her life if the man or his family are unsuitable.”

It’s an especially prevalent problem in Bihar, where two out of every five girls marry before they turn 18. “Most people don’t believe that there is any need to get [girls] educated,” Chandni added. “Those [girls] who are confined in these four walls, ask them how suffocating it feels.” Sending them to school instead, Chandni argues, would enhance both their personal potential and their family’s financial situation. 

A girl sitting in a room and studying from her books and mobile phone.
Chandni studying for her medical entrance exam via online classes. Photo by Pranab K. Aich/ Heifer International. 

Chandni did not want to hold herself back. Inspired by Chhoti’s work addressing these issues and leading conversations on equal opportunities for women and girls, Chandni decided to pursue her dream.

“I want to become a doctor,” she shared. “Some years back, I went for an ultrasound checkup because of a stomachache. There, I observed how inadequate medical facilities are [in villages]. Women don’t even get sound consultation during pregnancy. That is when I decided to become a doctor and serve my people.”

With a strong desire to fulfill her ambitions, she started to prepare for NEET, India’s biggest competitive examination to pursue a career in medicine. When in-person classes stalled during COVID-19, she started taking lessons from YouTube videos. To further her learning, she purchased a subscription for an online learning platform — not letting any roadblocks prevent her from reaching her goals.

A woman and a young girl sitting together on a patio outside a house in a village.
Chandni takes a break from studying to visit with her mentor, Chhoti. Photo by Pranab K. Aich/ Heifer International.

After watching Chandni follow her dreams, other young girls in her neighborhood also decided to complete their education, against all odds. The community is now seeing budding female police and army officers, sports coaches and diplomats. 

The spark of potential Chhoti has lit as a community trainer is now spreading like wildfire, blazing the spirits of girls and women and encouraging them to overcome social barriers and biases. They now carry dreams, a warrior within to fight for themselves and hope for a better tomorrow.