Winds of change blow among rural Indian women

March 7th, 2008 - 12:07 pm ICT by admin  

(Feature for Women’s Day March 8)
By Azera Rahman
New Delhi, March 7 (IANS) Most of them are illiterate and many conform to the stereotypical image of the ghunghat-draping rural Indian woman. But they are the harbingers of change at the grassroots - raising their voice against alcoholism among men and for educating girls and delivering speedy justice. Be it in Uttarakhand in the north or Gujarat in the west or Jharkhand in the east, this IANS correspondent came across the same story during her journeys in the country.

Shanti Devi, who took up a campaign against alcoholism, hails from a village in the Nainital district of Uttarakhand.

“We couldn’t tolerate that our hard earned money was being spent carelessly by our men on alcohol. It was becoming a serious problem. That’s why we decided to take up the campaign against alcoholism,” Shanti Devi told IANS.

“The problem of alcoholism was widespread in our region. So instead of just one village, we formed a federation of three groups called Chakdalar, Choti Nai and Chamma. More active participation by women was a solution to the problem,” she said.

The women raided liquor shops in their area and in the process were roughed up by some of the men.

“It was not easy raiding the liquor shops. We were often slapped and beaten up by the men. Fortunately, some men supported us and together we went on hunger strikes and took out campaigns to the streets shouting “Jua Sharab Band Karo”.

“We also approached the Block Development Officer to help us,” Shanti Devi, 40, said.

Radhika Devi, vice president of the Chakdalar group, is illiterate but when it comes to discussing issues that affect society and actually doing something about it, she never steps back.

“Most women in our groups have to face a lot of problems because of constraints from the family. But I have been lucky as my family always supported me and let me travel to tap my potential,” she said.

“As women community leaders, we are closer to the ground realities. That’s why we can assess the situation and come up with practical and creative solutions to problems.”

The women are now planning to improve the education scenario in their villages and ensure that girls go to the school.

In the Kutch district of Gujarat, where the literacy rate is as low as 64.06 percent for men and 40.89 percent for women according to the 1991 census, women have taken it upon themselves to educate their daughters.

The Kutchi women, who do embroidery and earn as much as their male counterparts, if not more, play a major role in taking all household decisions.

“The young girls go to school and are not taught the art of embroidery and making handicrafts. But once they attain puberty, they start doing so and drop out of school,” Natha Behn of the Ludiya village in Kutch said while smiling at her 14-year-old sister-in-law.

Pavitran Vittal, an official of the state’s tourism ministry, said that considering Kutch’s low literacy rate it was encouraging to see young girls going to school.

“People have to understand that it’s important for girls to complete their education, but this is the first step in the right direction. Considering that women have an important say in the family, this initiative by them is a ray of hope.

“Moreover, they make sure their daughters are capable of earning their own bread and butter. They are empowered,” Vittal told IANS, during one of the visits to the Kutch region early this year.

In Andhra Pradesh, Satyavathi, who is part of a women’s self-help group, spearheads the movement in her village to solve issues of land to the poor.

The group of 83 Scheduled Caste households that she is part of has been cultivating 54 acres of government land for more than two generations. Despite government rules that landless people in possession of government land should receive titles to the land, they had not received legal ownership.

“I raised the issue with paralegals who documented the issue and through our self-help group we submitted the issue to the district administration. The paralegals had to work hard to gain access to all the records.

“Finally in February last year all the 83 households received legal titles to the land,” she said.

“It feels good to bring about a change, no matter how big or small it may be,” Satyavathi added.

Nari Adalats are another institution through which rural women are making their presence felt. These are women’s courts that deliver speedy justice in tough cases like rape, child marriage and even divorce - mostly in just two weeks.

Madhu Lakra, a member of the Nari Adalat in Ranchi, Jharkhand, said stopping the marriage of a 12-year-old girl to an “aged” man who claimed to be a Maoist and putting a wealthy man behind bars after he raped a minor girl were her achievements in life.

“I have been hearing cases for the last two months and have solved at least 15 of them,” said Lakra, a postgraduate in Hindi from Ranchi University.

What started as a small gathering of rural women in Gujarat in 1995 has gained credibility over the years. Nari Adalats across India have solved over 23,000 cases so far.

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