When former Professor Karen Kayser and her MSW students arrived in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu in 2005—a year after the Indian Ocean tsunami had leveled 36 villages and killed 8,000 in the region—they immediately wanted to get to work. But instead of helping with reconstruction effort or handing out Western donations, they did what they do best: research.
Social work research, explains Kayser, is applied research. The first step is to go in, interview the victims, interview the service providers, collect data and get a real understanding of the scope of the challenge.
"But then you have to move on and ask, 'What can we do about this problem?'" says Kayser, who's primary field of research is helping couples and families cope with a cancer diagnosis. At first, Kayser and her students focused on the challenge of coping with the disaster.
But in the process of interviewing emergency first responders and representatives of local NGOs, they discovered a far more pressing problem. While government and international aid was pouring into the region, it wasn't reaching nearly 2,000 widows, some of the most marginalized members of Hindu society.
"For a married woman, her identity is very closely tied to her husband," explains Kayser. "So when she loses her husband, it's almost as if she dies with him." Even worse, says Kayser, if a woman is widowed or abandoned, then she is excluded from participation in society. This can result in less governmental aid, unemployment, alienation and loss of social status.
Kayser quickly shifted her research focus toward helping these women. With Professor Margaret Lombe, Kayser conducted a research study that evaluated micro-credit self-help groups for the widows. They found that the combination of immediate economic aid and group counseling planted the seeds of personal empowerment into the lives of these women.
But this was only a first step, says Kayser. As with any effective social work program, the key is to develop sustainable, long-term strategies, not quick fixes.
That's why Kayser is continuing to study the barriers to social inclusion that these women face in their communities, from education to health care to legal rights. The goal is to develop more comprehensive social services that will empower the women to make changes in their social status and advances in their participation in society.
"They're not looking for handout. They're looking for a livelihood," says Kayser. "At this point, they're growing into more of a social movement. Over a thousand of them get together on International Women's Day and participate in activities and events that promote their rights. They're not only raising their consciousness, but now they're saying, 'Let's change society.'"
See GSSW Magazine 2008 cover story on survivors of the Tsunami.