A grassroots organisation is empowering them in rural areas to fight bias and discrimination
Sarita Devi left her alcoholic husband after she could no longer tolerate his violent and abusive behaviour. She had two small daughters to take care of with no one to help. She chose a life of struggle over every day mental and physical torture. She toiled as a farm hand or did some odd jobs to make their ends meet. She worked hard to educate her daughters. Today, one of her daughters is a graduate and is preparing for job-oriented competitive exams. The other daughter is receiving training in tailoring. Sarita worked hard not only for her daughters but for herself as well. Recently, she has been elected as Panch (Ward Member) from the Gram Panchayat of Gagal in Kangra district, Himachal Pradesh. She has also formed a Self-Help Group (SHG). “The support of the Ekal Nari Shakti Sanghtan (ENSS) was of great help in providing guidance and assistance for the education of my daughters,”says Sarita. “What has changed today is that people have started looking at me with respect.” ENSS played a crucial role in rebuilding her confidence. She was elected as the President of the SHG called Ganga Sahaiyta Samooh. Kaushalya, is another single woman from Solan district who is a Ward Member from the Dhundan Gram Panchayat in Kunihar block. Her story too is that of a long lone struggle after she lost her husband in 2009. “But that is past, today I am happy that I am able to help the people of my own village,” said Kaushalya who had joined ENSS in 2018. The whole purpose of encouraging single women to contest polls is to try and make them partners in the grassroots governance and development. A part of SUTRA (Social Uplift through Rural Action), who has been running its programme on Local Self-Governance for almost twenty years now, ENSS is working to empower single women in rural areas who have to fight the patriarchal bias and discrimination even today. It helps single women avail the benefits of various government schemes including education of their children.
“It is the Sangathan which had encouraged me to stand for elections,” Kaushalya said. There were two other women in the fray but despite belonging to a Scheduled Caste, Kaushalya managed to win even if it was by a narrow margin of six votes. She also led a SHG formed by women who had lost their husbands. Kaushalaya had already won the respect and support of the women in the village by helping them fight cases of domestic violence. Shakuntala, the current Pradhan, is in fact a former Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP), Himachal Pradesh. Shakuntala had joined the force in 1977 when not just the society but even their own male colleagues were not ready to accept women in such a capacity. Post retirement, Shakuntala decided to contest elections for the post of Pradhan from the Dhundan Gram Panchayat. “40-year experience as part of the police force, hard work and the spirit to fight against all odds are some of the factors responsible for my victory in the election,” said gutsy Shakuntala who believes there is a lot to be done as she begins her journey in grassroot governance. The ENSS encourages single women to contest elections at grassroot level and lends their hand in campaigns. Life of single, widowed women in rural areas is full of challenges. Women like Sarita and Kaushalya are not only working hard to sustain their families but have shown the courage to take a stand against the patriarchal structure and caste norms. These single, rural women are showing the way to the rest of the world.
(The writer is a Himachal Pradesh-based journalist. The views expressed are personal.)