RURAL WEST BENGAL, India — Mamata Barui hopes her garden can save her.
When the 16-year-old is not cleaning, cooking or otherwise caring for her four younger siblings, she waters and weeds patches of garlic, radishes and green chilies. She harvests bay leaves and tends pumpkins, beans and bottle gourds that grow near her family’s cow shed.
Mamata’s garden produces all the vegetables her family eats. She hopes the surplus will generate enough cash to stop her parents from marrying her off.
“I feel afraid,” she said. “They say, ‘You’re not doing anything tangible.’ If I can sell whatever I grow, they might think of delaying my marriage.”
Mamata got that idea — and her gardening skills — from a weekly girls group she helps lead.
The group is part of a pilot project of the Seattle-based nonprofit Landesa, a new twist on that organization’s decades-long effort to use access to land as a way of pulling people out of poverty in India, China, Africa and elsewhere.
The project, underwritten by the Nike Foundation and a private donor, is part of a new girls’ empowerment program run by the Indian government. In 299 villages in far northeast India, Landesa’s program has taught roughly 7,800 girls how to garden in hopes of increasing their economic value to their families.
The idea is that if they are considered assets rather than extra mouths to feed, the girls might complete their educations and break out of the poverty cycle. Even if they do not, they will know how to grow food on even small plots of land, improving their nutrition and that of their future children.
The gardening skills also come with extensive lessons in women’s rights, which Landesa hopes will encourage girls to fight back against child marriage, as well as rape, prostitution and other forms of abuse.
If India decides to go ahead with Landesa’s gardening project, it is expected to roll out nationally with the rest of the girls’ empowerment program next year.
Girls are “the next generation, in terms of land rights,” said Gregory Rake, who directs Landesa’s work in India. “Mamata knows somebody else will ultimately make a decision over her life, but at least now she knows there is a different way.”
Although child marriage is illegal in India, almost half of girls under age 18 are married. They typically stop going to school and often have children at young ages, which compromises the health of the girls and their babies.
The U.S. State Department says India is a destination for child-sex tourism, and UNICEF estimates 1.2 million Indian children are prostitutes or enslaved.
Landesa faced opposition to the girls project in one predominantly Muslim community, just as it faced resistance in some parts of India to educational programs that discuss women’s legal right to inherit land. The nonprofit does not force communities to accept its programs.
In general, Landesa wins the ear of officials in India and elsewhere who want to give land to destitute families to help alleviate poverty. Governments often ask Landesa for help in identifying landless families, which can be difficult because many are not registered.
Landesa also helps to change land laws and to match families with land. In some cases, the land is government-controlled — for example, old colonial land in India. In others, it belongs to landowners who agree to sell it at market rates.
And Landesa helps poor people register the land, so it cannot be stolen by companies or developers.
Although the nonprofit has a low profile in its hometown of Seattle, many consider Landesa the world’s premier nonprofit group advocating for land rights. The group estimates its efforts have led to more than 100 million families having secure rights to land.
Roy Prosterman, a University of Washington law professor, started Landesa’s work in the ’60s. Originally called the Rural Development Institute, it sprang from Prosterman’s belief that stealing land from the rich to give to the poor was a recipe for violence.
He made a case for buying land at market rates and giving it to poor people. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) hired him to try it out in South Vietnam, where his program distributed land to a million families during the Vietnam War. Prosterman expanded his efforts in different forms to other areas, including China, Africa and India.
That kind of high-level policy work is unusual among anti-poverty nonprofits, said Scott Jackson, CEO of Global Impact, a grant-making nonprofit in Washington, D.C.
Most groups start with specific programs, then add policy work. Landesa is the opposite, giving it a much longer-term horizon before change is accomplished, he said.
“It might take 10 years to change policy in a state in India on land reform, but when they do, millions of families benefit,” Jackson said. Global Impact recently added Landesa to the roster of nonprofits to which it contributes.
Landesa’s largest funders last year were the Omidyar Network; the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; and the Skoll Foundation. (Among Landesa’s other funders is the Seattle International Foundation. That foundation also provides a grant to The Seattle Times to support coverage of international stories, including this one.)
Good for the girls
Bulbuli Barman notices major changes in her daughters, Chandana and Santana, since they began attending girls group meetings in 2011.
“Earlier, they were very shy,” she said, sitting on her dirt porch wearing lavender flip-flops and wrapped in a large red shawl with gold-threaded embroidery.
Now, the girls “communicate with others and have become very free,” their mother said.
Chandana, who is 14, does most of the gardening and, like Mamata, produces most of the family’s vegetables — peas and bottle gourds and leafy vegetables.
The girls’ father, Kashinath, figures the produce saves the family about $109 a year, or 7 percent of their annual income, because they rarely have to buy vegetables. The savings covers school fees and tutoring for the girls and their younger brother, Koushik.
Their father never gardened on the land before because, as a field worker, he did not realize such a small plot could make such a big difference.
None of it would have been possible without the tennis-court-sized plot of land the Barmans were given by the West Bengal government through a Landesa-designed program four years ago.
The Barman children and their neighbors talk and play in the field outside their house, the youngest girls turning cartwheels while the boys wheel old bicycle tires with sticks.
Bulbuli is surprised to hear people still let their daughters marry young.
“The day has changed,” she said.
But her modern thinking may not be as widespread as she believes.
Child marriage remains prevalent among India’s poor. Giving a girl away young can lower the dowry payment her parents are forced to give the husband and his family.
Just seven years ago, Bulbuli’s next-door neighbors — who did not receive their land through a Landesa program — married off their 13-year-old daughter, also named Chandana Barman. (Barman is a common last name in this village.)
“I could have gone to school and gotten a better life,” said Chandana, now 20 with two daughters of her own.
About an hour away, near the border of the tea-growing state of Assam, Mamata Barui waits to learn whether her father will change his mind about marrying her off early.
At one point this winter, she thought he had stopped inviting potential husbands, then another one appeared. They come about once a month.
Meanwhile, she helps lead the weekly girls group, one of hundreds of girls trained by Landesa to show their peers how to grow everything from eggplants to mushrooms.
On a tour of her garden just before preparing the family’s lunch, Mamata points out a mahogany sapling that was a gift from Landesa.
Someday, it will be worth a lot of money as lumber.
The tree cannot grow fast enough to forestall her own marriage.
“She does nothing,” explained her father, Sambhu, a carpenter who built the two-room house where the family of seven sleeps. “It’s a daughter, so what can she do? Nothing much. I have to marry her.”
Working the land is Mamata’s only hope — but she is far from certain.
Although she despairs about her situation, Mamata said, “I can’t blame my parents. I’m blaming my fate only.”