The Young Women's Christian Association has survived for well over a century because of its willingness to change. Janane Venkatraman traces its history
Enter the gates of the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA), with its winding pathways and tall shady trees, and you feel you're in a haven of peace, away from the din of vehicular traffic on Poonamallee High Road.
Started in 1884, the YWCA had a different name, recalls Sarah Chanda, all of 78, a long-time volunteer and board member. She says, “The YWCA was originally called the Madras Christian Women's Association. It used to be a place where British women would gather to have Bible readings, tea parties, sewing classes and the like. Around the same time, there used to be another gathering of women, called the King's Daughters.” It was founded by Lillie McConaughy, wife of David McConaughy, who had sailed from America to set up a YMCA in Madras. He set it up in February 1890. “King's Daughters was very similar to the Madras Christian Women's Association programme and hence they decided to merge,” says Mrs. Chanda.
Indeed, one of the founding members of the YWCA movement in Britain, Lady Emily Kinnaird ensured that the two associations merged before she left India. The merger formally took place in March 1892. “One Mrs. Wedderburn was the first president of the YWCA in Madras,” recalls Mrs. Chanda. “Another interesting thing to note,” she adds, “is that the meetings took place in the vernacular languages as well as in English. This was quite a step forward during a time when India was wholly controlled by British Raj. Sadly, the vernacular languages were abandoned after the formal merger.”
But the YWCA would need more hands to mould it into the movement Lady Kinnaird foresaw. Mary and Agnes Hill, two American volunteers, took over the reins. Mary became the president and Agnes looked after the association as its secretary. Mrs Chanda says, “It was Agnes who also gave the YWCA its first home at 8, Rundalls Road. But it was Mary who enabled the purchase of Clive House and its nine-acre property on Poonamallee High Road to give the YWCA its permanent residence.”
The YWCA has, over the decades, been known to provide shelter and accommodation to working women, students and distressed women. The campus originally had two buildings, other than Clive House, which were converted into hostels — St. Margaret's Hostel and the Mithra Bhavanam. What might have been a small underground rivulet in the campus was developed into a pond and named, poetically, The Mermaid Pond. Today, the pond teems with fish, water snakes, and baby turtles. One can also spot sparrows in abundance in the greenery here.
But over the years, the buildings became dilapidated. “Mithra Bhavanam, the students' hostel, was pulled down and in its place, two more hostels were built. It was felt that women with a higher income wouldn't mind paying a little more for extra facilities,” says Mrs. Chanda.
The hostels that subsequently came up were Ashiana for the lower income group and the J. Thomas hostel for those from the middle income group. High-income earners stayed at Clive House. As part of the YWCA's Platinum Jubilee celebrations, the Platinum Jubilee hostel was built in 1970. “And as part of the Centenary celebrations in 1992,” says Mrs. Chanda, “the International Guest House was built.”
Besides offering accommodation, the association has undertaken several service projects over the decades. Says Mrs. Chanda, “We have Sahodari for distressed women where we offer shelter, legal advice and counselling. The Pastor Pfeiffer Home (known earlier as Girls' Town) for destitute children provides them with food, education and an understanding environment.”
The YWCA has a community college on the campus that helps women who for various reasons are not able to complete their education. Mrs. Chanda beams with pride as she says, “This is the first time a YWCA has ever had a community college. We have also started a beautician course for women in the Puzhal Jail to equip them with skills that they can use when they are on parole.”
A ‘dyed-in-the-wool' volunteer at the YWCA as she calls herself, Mrs. Chanda is passionate when she says, “Most people don't understand that it is a movement. It is a movement for women and their betterment. When there is a need for change, we are willing to change. And that is what has taken us through so many decades of service.”
SOME OTHERS The Women's Indian Association (WIA) has come a long way since its inception in 1917. Dr. Booma Srinivasan, treasurer, says, “The WIA was founded in Adyar, the Theosophical Society's home turf, by Dr. Annie Besant, Margaret Cousins, Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy and Rukmani Arundale among others.”
The movement was deeply involved with the social and educational liberation of women and by the late 1920s, numerous women's associations had sprung up all over India.
The movement gained momentum in 1927 as the WIA, along with other women's associations across the country, formed the All India Women's Conference (AIWC). Orchestrated by Mrs. Cousins, the AIWC met for the first time in Pune at Fergusson College. They have met every year since then.
As of now, the Women's Indian Association has 79 branches, with a strength ranging from 60 to 150 each in Chennai city and its periphery. The association undertakes several activities such as tailoring, a computer education training centre and nurse aid training. “We also run working women's hostels, schools and crèches. Currently we have around 58 daycare centres in Chennai,” says Dr. Booma.