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Dalit women ensure Mid Day Meals for children

Jul 07, 2014

This is a success story. The backdrop: a small, dusty village in Madhya Pradesh; the protagonists: oppressed dalit women, who managed to shed their inhibitions and overcome centuries old caste and class baggage to save their children from the curse of hunger and severe malnutrition.

Tribal women

Mundalana village in Sonkatch block of Dewas district is home to 800 dalits, out of a total population of 2,600. Owing to their backward social status, this community had been forced to live at the periphery of the village, they were denied access to common spaces such as the village well and temple, and often had no option but to work as bonded agricultural labourers without minimum wages. Poverty and severe hunger threatened their very existence but they could never rise above their misfortunes. Life would have continued in this dismal manner had it not been for a few courageous women and men who decided to seek change with the help of Jan Sahas, a local non government organisation that has been working on issues of livelihood and food security in the region.

Says Rajendra Ahirwar, Co-ordinator, Jan Sahas, “It’s a well-known fact that dalits in this area have no social status, no rights and no prospects. While on the one hand they are subjected to discrimination, on the other their superstitious beliefs hold them back. However, over the last two years, the dalits of Mundalana have been working hard to fight illiteracy, unemployment and hunger and it’s the women who have emerged as the new voice of this community.”

Under the Fight Hunger First Initiative, launched by Welthungerhilfe, an international development agency, Jan Sahas has been encouraging the dalits of Mundalana to fight for their rights and improve the health and nutrition status of their children by ensuring equitable access to government schemes like the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) and mid day meals. In 2012, it facilitated the formation of the 12-member Dalit Vanchit Vikas Manch to address critical problems and come up with workable solutions. From the word go, there were two issues that figured prominently on the agenda: securing work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) and freeing children from malnutrition.

Even as they got down to the task of preparing an action plan to demand 100 days of unskilled employment under MGNREGA, their crusade against hunger started off with the six women members of the Manch taking on the local school authorities on the discontinuation of the mid day meal programme. This government scheme not only assures impoverished children of one nutritious meal a day it also acts as a major incentive for them to attend school. The mid day meals at the Government Primary and Middle School Mundalana had been stopped after Shanta Bai, the woman in charge of cooking, retired in 2009. States Seema Bai, 35, “When children go hungry or fall ill it’s their mothers who feel the pain. So it was only natural for us to take up this issue with the authorities. Around 150 dalit children attend the local school and when the mid day meal was discontinued they suffered immensely. Being poor, their parents used to count on that one meal to ensure some level of nutrition for the children but this facility too was snatched away from them. Once we constituted the Manch we got the confidence to speak out.”

The task at hand was not easy and soon enough the women faced their first hurdle. When they approached their sarpanch (village council head) to look into the matter, he refused. He was not willing to extend himself for the well-being of children from the backward caste. Undeterred, they enlisted the help of Jan Sahas activists and directly took their demand to the state Department of Women and Child Development. After hearing them out, the Department officials suggested that they take on the responsibility of cooking and serving the meal. The women were instantly agreeable to this but they were informed that they would need to form a Self Help Group that would receive the required assistance from the administration to run the mid day meal service.

Their next challenge came when they went to the bank to open an account so that money to buy supplies and give out wages could be sought from the government. The bank officials told them that their application needed to come from the gram panchayat office. Once again they went back to the reluctant sarpanch and once again they came back disappointed. Despite repeated efforts when he did not agree to sanction their papers, the women approached the District Collector, who expedited their work. The entire process took two months but thanks to the relentless spirit of the women Manch members the mid day meal scheme was back on track.

Today, the SHG women, working under the guidance of the Dalit Manch, are dishing out hot food for hungry kids every afternoon. While the wheat, rice and lentils used to prepare the meals are sourced from the nearby PDS (Public Distribution System) ration shop, the money that is directly put into their account by the government is used to pay the wages of the cook. The SHG receives Rs 3.25 per primary school child and Rs 5 per middle school child, which helps them cover their expenses.

Apart from facilitating the resumption of the mid day meal, in a bid to tackle the issue of severe malnourishment among the children in the community, the women members of the Manch are keeping an eye on the functioning of the village anganwadi. They make sure that the centre is open daily and that the anganwadi worker provides the necessary nutritional supplements and other services to expectant women and children under six years. Shares Padam Bai, 40, “There are several activities that the Dalit Vanchit Vikas Manch has undertaken to improve the nutritional status of our women and children. We get together with the Jan Sahas activists to organise regular nutritional melas in the village where we give women information regarding locally available nutritious foods besides talking to them about the importance of hygiene, proper breast feeding and immunisation. Lately, we have been ensuring that the anganwadi worker refers the severely malnourished children to the government-run Nutrition Rehabilitation Centre (NRC) at Sonkatch so that they can get proper care and treatment.”

Interestingly, female members of the Manch have learnt to effectively participate in the Gram Sabha meetings as well. “Earlier, the Gram Sabha meetings were a mere formality. But now we go there regularly to make sure that issues and pending matters related to the welfare of the village are discussed. We put up our concerns without fear and when it comes to our entitlements and benefits we do not compromise. In fact, we had first raised the issue of the mid day meal in the Gram Sabha,” informs Bhagwant Bai, 56. Incidentally, the Manch members, too, meet up once a month to review their work and come up with future plans.

When it comes to demanding their rights, women like Bhagwant, Padam and Seema have understood that there is no alternative to speaking out. What has brought about this amazing transformation is the realisation that there is strength in unity. Explains Padam Bai, “Till a couple of years back, we used to approach officials individually but no one would acknowledge our presence. Now we go in groups of 20 or 30 and officials can’t afford to ignore us anymore. Things are definitely looking up for us.”

The dalit women of this remote village have successfully set the right agenda for eradicating hunger and saving their children from malnutrition.

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