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In the wings: Indian heroines of 2009

Dec 29, 2009

Far from the arch lights of the media, Women’s Feature Service takes a look at some lesser known women who have turned the societal tide against them. They have shown through their extraordinary courage that they were the true newsmakers of 2009 – and also an inspiration for the coming times.

Teenager spurns child marriage and gains national praise

Jodhpur: At around 9.30 pm on April 21, 2008, Asu Kanwar, 14, a teenager discreetly visited a public calling booth to telephone Indu Chopra, an official with Rajasthan's Women and Child Development Department in Jodhpur.

"Some 200 people are holding a siege outside my village Nedhana and are threatening to kidnap me if I don't comply," she sobbed into the phone. The girl said she feared for her life, if she didn't agree to marry the 40-year-old physically-challenged farmer, Sawai Singh, who had 'bought' her from her father for Rs 49,000 (US$1=Rs 46.6) and a gold necklace.

As Asu – a primary school drop-out and the eldest of six children of a poor cattle herder who was also a drug addict – was finally rescued and made the 140-kilometre jeep ride to Jodhpur, she had no idea that she was actually on her way to winning a National Bravery Award, the Bapu Gayadhani Award.

She was conferred the honour, along with 19 other awardees, by Mohammad Hamid Ansari, Vice President of India, at a ceremony in New Delhi in January 2009.

Asu's frantic call set the government and police machinery into action. Sawai Singh agreed to nullify the "deal" and Asu's father returned the money and the necklace. Had it not been for her defiance, Asu's tale would have been nothing out of the ordinary in Western Rajasthan, especially Jaisalmer, where traditions of child marriage and female infanticide are rampant.

Draping hope: Mums to the rescue of Banarasi weavers

Varanasi: The plight of Banarasi sari weavers dates back to 1995 when the government imposed a ban on the weaving of Chinese silk, mandating weavers to buy the more expensive Bangalore silk. In 2001, under WTO negotiations on declining of import tariffs on textiles such as saris, cheap Chinese crepe fabric began eating into the Banarsi silk sari market.

Sharda Devi, 50, a dalit resident of Mustafabad, a hub of Banarasi sari weavers, some 20 kilometres off Varanasi was worried. The eldest of her 10 children, two boys were school drop-outs who had joined the sari-weaving trade just when the industry was facing a downturn and additional threat from the powerlooms that produced saris in little time and at less than half the price of a handloom Banarasi sari.

Sharda could not sit back and watch her sons' salary dwindle from Rs 100 (US$1=Rs 46.6) a day to less than half. So this shy housewife conferred with similarly harried mothers to form a Self-Help Group (SHG) called Shanti. Such SHGs had started to spring up in around 61 villages across two blocks of Varanasi – Chirgaon and Cholapur – from 2001.

It was in that year that Find Your Feet (FYF), the Indian arm of a UK-based charity working to improve the socio-economic lot of the marginalised in India and Malawi (Africa), had made the first efforts to assist weavers by setting up SHGs that allowed them to work without middlemen in the economic chain; and to find alternative sources of livelihood. Sharda, today, earns Rs 2,000 from the two buffalos she bought on loan from the SHG. In addition, she grows marigold flowers, much in demand in the temple town. Her yearly income is a comfortable Rs 50,000. She also borrowed Rs 50,000 to get a submersible pump installed in her courtyard to tackle the perennial water crisis in the area.

Kandhamal’s wonder women fight hate

Kandhamal: "One morning, I heard a knock on the door. When I opened it I saw a group of men holding swords behind them. They started threatening me. They asked me why, despite being the daughter of a Hindu, I was not 'participating' in the attack against Christians," recalls Laxmi Priya Parida, 34, from Bramunigaon, a village located in Orissa's strife-torn Kandhamal district.

Instead of panicking, a composed Laxmi explained to the agitators that her family had exercised a personal choice and that no one could force them to take part in the riots. She also appealed to the men not to spread any more violence.

"I knew I was appealing to a group of people who had lost all sense of humanity. I was scared and so was my family, but my conscience didn't allow me to bow before a brutal mob," she says, while remembering the time the riots had first broken out in December 2007 in the district.

A social worker by profession, Laxmi not only challenged the fundamentalists in her village but also encouraged people from all communities to work towards maintaining peace. Recalling the atmosphere of intense terror at that point, she reveals, "Frightened people fled to the nearby forests where they had nothing to eat and drink for days."

Laxmi works for an Orissa-based NGO, Council of Professional Social Workers, which focuses on securing livelihood for tribals, Dalits and the rural poor. However, ever since the ethno-religious conflict in Kandhamal, she along with her colleagues has been spreading the message of peace through Self-Help Groups (SHGs) covering eight panchayats in the district.

Look who’s guarding the border? It’s Basanti!

Birbhum: Basanti Mondal, 20, is a celebrity in her village Kirnahar in Birbhum district of West Bengal. She is the chief guest at all village functions and the families ask for her advice on important decisions like which school the children be sent to, which jobs the youth should try for, how to find grooms for their daughters, and so on. After all, Basanti carries a gun, wears a uniform and is in the 'force'.

A year ago, Basanti was a rebel. She had left the village almost as an outcast, defying parental and social objections, in response to an ad in the Employment Gazette asking for women recruits for the Border Security Force (BSF). The villagers were horrified at the very thought of a girl joining the 'force' and doing a man's work - and wearing trousers as well!

After completion of a 36-week rigorous training, I am finally a constable with the BSF. My hard work and perseverance is paying rich dividends. The villagers revere me now. Not in their wildest dreams had they thought a girl from their village would make it to the force," smiles Basanti.

A total of 178 women recruits passed out with flying colours from BSF's Kharkan training camp, 15 kilometres from Hoshiarpur, Punjab, in July 2009, as the first batch of the armed women contingent. Although the minimum qualification required to join was Class XII, of the 178 women constables in the first batch of women between 18-22 years of age, 14 are post-graduates and 22, graduates. There are also 25 sportswomen and 11 National Cadet Corps (NCC) volunteers.

The BSF plans to recruit 35,000 women guards in para-military forces over the next four years.

Azamgarh’s Anita is sowing seeds of change

Azamgarh: With her heavily oiled hair pulled back into a tight bun, a cotton sari draping her tall frame and a huge leather purse dangling from her shoulders, Anita Yadav, 40, walks with determined strides along the narrow mud lanes of Phulpur in Azamgarh, Uttar Pradesh.

Anita is a social activist with a post-graduate degree in home science. Feminism according to her is all about being a woman and yet empowering oneself to ensure that one gets one's rightful place in a male-dominated society. Doing her bit for the welfare of rural women through her NGO, Akhil Bhartiya Joti Mahila Sewa Sansthan, she has spearheaded a movement for female farmers and has 1,500 members who support her belief that a "woman has every right to be registered as a joint claimant to the land she tills."

Anita explains that even though women do nearly 70% of the farm work in most states, they have no status or right to the land they till; are ignored both in policy and practice; are among the poorest of the poor; and unlike, their male counterparts, do not even have the basic identity as a 'farmer'.

If a woman becomes a claimant to the land not only will it give her a certain power and dignity, it will also help her get loans in case of her husband's absence from the village, explains Anita, who believes that by educating women about their rights, one strengthens society as a whole.

A house for Nareen, riot-affected

Mumbai: "Why should I leave? This is my home. I refuse to go anywhere else," states Nasreen Bano, 42. A victim of the 1992-93 Mumbai riots and now a resident of Mankhurd's Mandala settlement, a dense Mumbai slum, Nasreen is actively involved in her fight for a legal tenement in the city through the 'Ghar Bachao, Ghar Banao Andolan' (Save a Home, Build a Home movement). The Andolan has submitted a housing project to the state government.

Her desire to own a home reflects the insecurity endured due to displacement: The 1992-93 riots saw Nasreen's family and several others take refuge in a tiny room in south Mumbai's Byculla area. She then moved to a mill in Madanpura with other Muslim families seeking safety.

In 1999, Nasreen and her husband, a tailor, built a small house in Indira Nagar slum, Mandala, on a plot purchased at Rs 14,000 (US$1=Rs 48) from a local slumlord. But a government demolition drive in 2004 brought that down. Homeless, they lived on the streets till they moved back to Indira Nagar. Unfortunately, in 2006 a fire destroyed Indira Nagar and parts of Janta Nagar.

But Nasreen's unfortunate experiences have only strengthened her resolve. "Why is the government handing over land to the wealthy builders for a pittance? Why can't they give us the land? We have mazdoors (labourers) in our midst. After all, we have built this city," she asserts.

Incidentally, a 2006 fact finding report by the Mumbai Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) observed that people who lost their houses due to demolition in Indira Nagar and Janta Nagar, Mandala and Mankhurd had voter ID cards and were residents of the areas for more than 10 years. All slums built till 2000 are legal.

Texts by Renu Rakesh, Puja Awasthi, Eliza Parija, Ajitha Menon, Kulsum Mustafa, and Shobha S.V. in that order.

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