Earlier this year, Alumni CINI Australia Staff Member, Hollie Cavanagh, travelled to West Bengal for the 50th Anniversary of CINI. Her story was shared at our Annual Mother’s Day Celebration High Tea Fundraiser to an audience of 100. Her story is one of empowerment, strength, resilience and change, as she followed the lives of two little girls from 2019 to 2024.

I’d like to start by adding my acknowledgement of the traditional custodians of the beautiful country we meet on today, the Wadjuk people of the Noongar Nation who have nurtured these lands since the beginning of time.  I pay my respect and gratitude to elders past, present and emerging, extending this to all First Nations people across the place now known as Australia and particularly to any Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people who join us here today.  May their deep and enduring connection to country and culture, always remain.

I live with my imperfect yet loving and loyal husband and our 2 often flawed yet warm and sometimes adoring adolescent kids and, our middle aged yet utterly adorable maltese shitzu dog.  We live in a peaceful, safe community thick with the love and support of family and friends, on a backdrop of mostly solid acceptance and opportunity.  Don’t get me wrong, my life and that of my family hasn’t been, nor is it now, without genuine challenge and trauma…but on the whole and outside looking in, mine is the life of a pretty ordinary whitefella living a mostly charmed life on the coast of beautiful Wadjuk country.

But between 2017 and 2023, I had the very EXTRA-ordinary privilege of working closely with Jennie (who you’ll hear from later) and CINI Australia – and while those years are over, I know for sure that I can never depart myself from it, because of the utterly captivating, faultlessly enduring efforts it continues to make, delivering life-changing programs of empowerment to the most vulnerable communities I will ever know.

This knowing deepened even further after my 2nd visit to CINI India, earlier this year, together with some of the Board members.  We were inspired by the 50th Anniversary celebrations and humbled by the warm welcomes that met us upon arrival at every community we visited.

Seeing CINI in action in India, is a deeply profound experience – visiting the communities, meeting the families and children, and hearing about the impact that CINI is having on their lives.  CINI operates at an unbelievable scale – seeing first hand the enduring commitment and passion of the CINI staff and frontline workers who stop at nothing meet the needs of every vulnerable individual they encounter, is nothing short of astounding.  CINI is absolutely making a real difference in the lives of many.

As you’ll hear or may already know, the most direct impact CINI has is on the pre-natal mother, the newborn baby, child and adolescent stages of life.  Just from 5 years of working with CINI and 2 visits to India, I’ve been witness to countless stories of change from every one of these life stages.  So, it’s near impossible to choose what story to share, from which program impacting which family in what community…But as a parent of 2 teenagers, it’s the stories of transformation and empowerment of young people that resonate deeply with me right now.

So, I’m going to share the story of 2 girls we met during our February 2019 visit to India, at a support group meeting for HIV effected families and young people.  In this picture these girls are the same age that my daughter is now.  But by the age of 14, Arufa and Jasmina (names have been changed) had been dealt a very different hand to the tiktok-ing teens of Perth.

Arufa was sick for a long time before she learned that she was HIV positive.  When she first found out, she blamed herself, she felt alone and scared and didn’t believe anyone would care that she was sick.  When CINI outreach workers first came to her village, she wasn’t convinced that they could be of any help.  But with further counselling and education, she eventually accepted the support of CINI and over the coming years, her strength and confidence grew.

Arufa’s Story

Jasmina’s mum died of HIV when she was a baby and her father took her brother and, being the burdensome girl child, Jasmina was left behind with her mother’s family.  When we met her in 2019 she’d been attending CINI’s HIV support program for 2 years – at the time, she told us how CINI had taught her how to stay healthy and strong.

Five years on, in February this year, we met these girls again.

Arufa, now works as a mentor for groups of adolescent girls, just like she is here…she’s effectively paying forward the skills and confidence that she gained with CINI’s support, to the next generation of girls attending their HIV support programs.  When we met this group, Arufa was sitting front and centre, telling us (a large group of tall white strangers) her story, with the help of Suchi, our CINI chaperone and translator.  She spoke with unmistakable clarity, confidence and excitement for her future, as the girls behind her hung on her every word (as did we).  Arufa blushed as she shared the news of her (choice) marriage and proudly spoke of her work as a tailor – a skill she also gained through the CINI lifeskills program.

When Jasmina recently turned 18, she made the difficult choice to run away from her family as they were planning her arranged marriage (so she would no longer be their responsibility).  Also escaping the physical and emotional abuse of relatives, she bravely left with nothing but a small bag of personal belongings and went straight to CINI to seek immediate support. 

If she hadn’t been engaged with CINI’s support program for as long as she had, Jasmina would have remained disempowered and convinced she was without choice.  Instead, she took her rightful path and with CINI’s support has secured affordable accommodation and a traineeship to build her skills for future employment and a life of independence.  In this photo, she too was telling us her story (again with our impeccable translator, Suchi) with authentic confidence and the knowledge that she has made the right choice and has the steady backing of CINI to follow through.  Before we left India, we visited Jasmina at the café where she’s completing her traineeship and she proudly took our orders, and served us our meals.

And this gorgeous woman behind her is CINI outreach and support worker Deepa – she is a firm and bold feature in all these support groups and programs – so fierce and steadfast ensuring that vulnerable young women, like Arufa and Jasmina demand nothing less than genuine and empowered self-determination.

These are just 2 of the countless stories of change that I’ve seen since I first became involved with CINI 7 years ago.  That’s just 7 years -out of FIFTY – they’ve been doing this for 50 years and they’re bloody good at it.  CINI responds to whole spectrums of disadvantage and vulnerability – from the children rescued from being trafficked across the border to the flood effected regions high up in the mountains – countless programs across the most vulnerable communities with a reach that goes from the most remote and isolated villages of West Bengal to the densest inner city urban areas of Kolkata. 

It’s a response that creates palpable excitement in a newly empowered adolescent and maintains the dignity of a new mum rejected by a community that doesn’t yet know that HIV is not a touchable disease.  It’s these stories that are confronting and inspiring all in the same view, and the passion and care of the CINI’s enduring response that will keep this spectacular organisation firmly in the deepest part of my heart and soul, for the rest of my days.

Hollie x