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Posted at: Feb 11, 2018, 12:54 AM; last updated: Feb 11, 2018, 12:54 AM (IST)

Small steps to big change

In little hamlets, villages and towns across India, women are leading a silent revolution against patriarchal norms and inequality

Sarah Berry

“There is no tool for development more effective than the empowerment of women.” — Kofi Annan

In an ever-changing world, with powerful dynamics constantly at play, gender equality is a growing concern. However, women continue to fight and overcome the patriarchal shackles, making society a better place for not only themselves, but for the community at large. 

Finding meaning in the service of others

Rehmani of Karheri village in Nuh district, Haryana, has never studied a school book, but the lack of literacy has not dimmed the fire in her belly to work for the betterment of her village and community at large. An Asha worker, she has  joined an NGO to serve even more people around her. “I heard about the Block Leadership School (an initiative by the S M Sehgal Foundation) in the nearby village of Ghaghas in Nuh. There, I joined a training programme that focused on good rural governance. The programme updated us on the various schemes that the government offered. The schemes were quite amazing, but the awareness among villagers about these was very low. I wanted to share this knowledge with my fellow villagers so that they, too, can benefit from these schemes. I still recall how the issue of a missing laptop in a school triggered my first ‘movement’ of getting it back for those it was originally meant for — the students, and not the teacher.”

Her efforts towards generating awareness about different government schemes, facilitating delivery of services to the ones who are entitled to these but lack information and access, and ensuring a sustainable deliverance of justice, have been commendable. Rehmani, who doesn’t charge a penny for her efforts, has helped built around 100 toilets in her village by motivating others. She has also held about five to six workshops on health and hygiene for around a 100 students and has led several sanitation campaigns — all during the last year. When her village was affected because of irregular ration supply by the depot, approximately four-five kilometres from her own village, she helped one of the village boys procure a licence for a depot, ensuring a proper and regular supply of rations for her village. The age of 55 is not a deterrent for a tireless fight against injustice. “I believe in helping others. It gives life a meaning.” 

Simulating Mother Nature

Her simple attire, serene face and almost bare surroundings are the first to catch one’s attention. “Why are you spending so much of your money on social causes, when you can spend a comfortable life with your savings?” Gulli mai has often been asked this question. Mai means mother and is a salutation given to her as a token of respect for her selfless service. She has no children of her own but has adopted a son. Gulli lives with her husband in Devka Dewra village under Samra panchayat in Alwar, Rajasthan. 

“My journey started around 35 years ago when I returned from a pilgrimage. I realised that what matters only are blessings; nothing else is transferrable to the next incarnation, whatever and wherever that may be.”

Mai has contributed towards the digging of three ponds – a cause close to her heart. She has spent around Rs 50,000 of her savings for this cause. “Water is life, be it for plants, animals or humans. Quenching a soul’s thirst is the utmost karma. That is why I feel this is such an important cause, especially when the earth is parched during summers, and there is no source of water for miles,” says Gulli. Besides this, she has actively contributed towards many other causes like planting trees, khaan daan (donation of food), construction of a dharamshala and donation for schools, among others. “Why should money be hoarded?” So, what next, we ask? “The almighty guides and I serve,” she smiles.

Fighting spirit

Deepti Gulati was diagnosed with Systemic Lupus Erythematosus or SLE just before her marriage. This chance diagnosis did not stop her and her fiancée from getting married and starting a family together. While the disease challenged her at each and every step, it did not deter her from working for others. “I joined the Hunger project in 1998 for implementing a reproductive and child health programme in two blocks of Jhansi district. Somewhere into the assignment, due to possible exposure to a patient, I developed tuberculosis meningitis, slipping into coma for 2-3 days. The doctors said I would never be able to walk again, but defiance and resilience are like second nature to me. I bounced back, not only stronger but with a new outlook towards life. I vowed to volunteer extensively – for diverse causes. That was my calling.”

Gulati’s passion brought her to work with the UP Science Centre in 1993. She has been actively involved with the National Children’s Science Congress that the centre has been organising for the past 25 years. It has touched the lives of 70,000 children as per Gulati. “Sensitisation of students towards science and technology, even in the smallest way possible, can have a large impact, changing their lives forever. Programmes such as science and technology in industries, physics in everyday life, creative writing in the field of journalism, nature camps, low-cost innovative didactic tools, road safety, and many more such social initiatives have been a regular feature at the centre. You cannot imagine the metamorphosis this exposure can result in. IIt is heartwarming to witness lives being transformed through such simple measures."

Gulati and her family moved to the US in 2004. Trouble followed her there too. “I developed another condition of Avascular Necrosis or AVN. I came back to India, broken in mind and body, and in a wheelchair. I joined the centre again, pulling myself  together”, recalls Gulati.  She was walking with crutches, but Gulati never lost her fighting spirit – her work being her inspiration. Research led her to a traditional form of medicine treatment in China for AVN. “I remember becoming a pioneer for obtaining a mobile planetarium for the UP Science Centre. It was like stepping into ‘Alice in Wonderland’ each time the students entered it. I lived and relived that sense of amazement time and again,” adds Gulati with a deep sense of fulfilment in her voice.

Her next endeavour is to introduce the curriculum for Universal Ethics – being designed by the Ayur Gyan Trust (started by her father) – extensively in all schools. The objective: to introduce values and ethics in order to encourage a more compassionate tomorrow for one and all. 

A voice for the voiceless

“I was born in a middle class joint family,” says Arti Manchanda, a specialist in communications. “The atmosphere in which I was brought up was conservative, but not stifling. I was the eldest; taking responsibilities and sharing came naturally to me. My father was my strength – be it professionally or personally. I had an active say in decision making processes in the family, a privilege I earned over the years. Journalism was always my call, though I realised it over time only.”

Her actual journey began with the setting up of a community radio at a community centre in Ghaghas village in Mewat district, Haryana, with the help of her supervisor, who was also her mentor in many ways. Alfaz-e-Mewat was to serve as a mouthpiece for all those who never knew of any platform to voice their opinions. “It was like giving birth. The cause of adolescents has always been close to my heart. The programmes scheduled at the station have not only upped the awareness index, the courage to express has been constantly encouraged too. Gender equality and sensitisation are burning issues. Hence, we also hold workshops regularly on these subjects." 

For Arti, not just writing, but poetry is a powerful medium of expression too. Her poems form a major part of the content for programmes aired is on sexual harassment and eve teasing.

In villages and towns across India, these women are working in their own small ways to bring on the big change.

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