|Historically, religion has been
among the most powerful agents for changing human attitudes and behavior. Religion has
traditionally defined what it means to be human, and it has defined the nature of our
goals and relationships. And it is on this point--the struggle to change human attitudes
and behavior--that the Bahá'í approach to the problems of education, development and
environmental conservation offers perhaps the most hope.
Because the material means of the Bahá'í community are limited, most of
these efforts are small in scale, serving their immediate locality.
Nevertheless, the approach to creating and operating these
projects is distinctively Bahá'í. Directly or indirectly, nearly all promote the oneness
of humanity. Many incorporate an emphasis on uplifting the status of women. Many seek to
serve minority populations that have been discriminated against. Most make extensive use
of the principle of consultation in an effort to seek input from--and empower--those whom
the projects attempt to serve. The aggregate result is the emergence of a new model for
integrated and comprehensive social and economic development.
Vocational Institute for Rural Women
In India, for example, the national Bahá'í
community has started a wide range of schools and development projects. Among these
projects is the Bahá'í Vocational Institute for Rural Women in Indore in the state of
Madhya Pradesh, which offers free literacy and vocational training for underprivileged
young women in the region.
The Institute, which reaches out to impoverished villages in
a wide area, emphasizes training in locally useful and marketable skills. Like most
Bahá'í-sponsored projects, however, it also incorporates elements of spiritual and moral
education--a focus which contributes greatly to the institute's overall effectiveness.
"Although literacy, vocational and health training are
essential, we believe that one of the most important things we do at the Institute is to
help these young women recognize their full potential as human beings," said Janak
Palta McGilligan, the Institute's director. "This is where the element of moral
education comes into play."
The Institute's curriculum of spiritual and moral education,
for example, emphasizes the equality of women and men, the oneness of humanity, and the
importance of having a pure heart and selfless motives. These principles, in turn, provide
an underlying motivation for transformation and self-development.
"We try to imbue them with self-confidence, so that they
know they are very important as individuals, and that they can play an important role in
improving their own homes and helping their villages to grow and develop," said Dr.
Tahirih K. Vajdi, who helped to found the Institute and who also serves on the National
Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of India, which sponsors the project. "We have
found that, indeed, when these women return to their villages, they affect their entire
communities. They bring back new ideas about health and hygiene. They promote the
importance of educating children."
The Institute was recognized in June 1992 with a Global 500
Award from the United Nations Environmental Programme. The award citation read in part:
"Since 1987, the Bahá'í Vocational Institute for Rural
Women has conducted three environmental programmes to educate villagers on the prevention
and eradication of Guinea worms caused by contaminated water in 302 villages in central
India... When the program began 752 people were infected and 211,813 were at risk. Today,
the district is completely free of Guinea Worms." continues