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'Don't accept the stereotype of being the weaker sex'

March 11, 2015 00:10 IST

Winners of the Stree Shakti Puraskars share their stories on how they are empowering women. Upasna Pandey/Rediff.com reports

They have fought long, lonely and hard battles against discrimination, traditional taboos, system apathy and challenged the status quo. The extraordinary stories of six such women tell us how determined women can change the world.

They are winners of national awards -- Stree Shakti Puraskars, and another eight, winners of the National Nari Shakti Puraskars. They received their award from the President of India at a ceremony at the Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi on International Women’s Day.

As flag bearers who refuse to be cowed by critics and tough conditions, these women and organisations, show how it is possible to make a positive impact without raising a cry or rhetoric.

They have focused on areas such as malnutrition among women and children, rehabilitation of human trafficking victims, rights of women prisoners, creating a green ecosystem for our future generations, life of dignity for HIV positive women, among other areas that need the nation’s attention.

Upasna Pandey/Rediff.com spoke with some of the winners to know about their experiences, challenges and learning.

Seema Prakash, 48, is the winner of the Stree Shakti - Rani Lakshmibai Award. Her organisation Spandan Samaj Seva Samiti, has been working among the Korku tribe for more than a decade now. Her work is located in Khalwa Block of Khandwa district in Madhya Pradesh. She was also awarded the Ashoka India Fellowship in 2006.

“The main challenge for us is to persuade the adivasis to break out of their traditional ways of doing things. This is critical when it comes to giving urgent medical attention to malnourished children. We convince them that they can continue to do their rituals for saving the child but he or she must be taken to the hospital as well,” says Seema.

“I have been working on the issue of malnourished Korku children and women and there has been support from local NGOs and the government. The per day meal budget for children has also been raised. There has been progress in the quality of life in the area where we work,” she adds.

Spandan is also credited for transforming anganwadis into child-friendly centres with material support from Goonj, another NGO, which facilitated the facelift of 100 anganwadi with clothing, toys and recreational material. Setting up crèches for daily wage earning women has been an area of priority for Spandan.

Many innovative grassroots interventions have also been undertaken, which include community based malnutrition management programme for early-tracking of nutritional status of the children and following it up with mother counselling. Nearly 1,000 children have been assisted through mobile teams functioning across 100 villages.

Seema talks about the 40 grain banks that are being managed by the community where the poor can borrow grain in peak hunger times. Her message on International Women’s Day is simple yet forceful. “I believe Indian women can do much more if we get more opportunities in various fields and we can lift ourselves from being second-rate citizens in the country. Women will have to do something substantive and strong to come up.”

She adds that women need to appreciate each other’s work and show solidarity among them to bring empowerment for Indian women.

Reacting to the recent BBC documentary on Nirbhaya’s rapist, Seema says that “as a nation we are not mentally ready to acknowledge the reality.”

Sister Mariola, 57, teaches English at Sophia College Ajmer and was honoured with the Stree Shakti - Rani Gaidinliu Zeliang award. Her college building shares a common wall with the central Jail in the city. “I thought there would be many teachers in the country so I decided to work for the most neglected and vulnerable sections of the society. I began my work with the prisoners and later focused only on women prisoners who are most vulnerable.”

A native of Goa, Sister Mariola recalls that her peers would often point that she “didn’t need to take risks when she had a good teaching job. But as a follower of Lord Jesus who took so many risks in his life, I felt compelled to serve vulnerable people.”

Despite no formal legal education, Sister Mariola has been able to raise the voice for prisoners. One such case was a woman who had served over 11 years of her total 15 year imprisonment term. “She was diagnosed with cancer and wanted to die with dignity, I was able to secure her release. She lived for a month outside the prison and died with dignity,” recalls Sister Mariola.

She also talks about another case where she had to fight for 6 years to secure the release of a mentally unstable prisoner who had served most of his imprisonment term in solitary confinement, and had also lost his eyesight. “I defended his case in the court, he was released and lived for over a year in a rehab centre and then died.”

“It is a tough battle to bring awareness among women prisoners of their legal rights, as well as reaching out to victims’ families for their rehabilitation. Sometimes I wish I could go for a law course so I could serve the prisoners better, but there is shortage of time and I am working as an individual, so it gets even more difficult,” says Sister Mariola.

Sister Mariola wishes there could be more prisons without walls in the country. She argues that prisoners can be engaged in community work and they can play a role in nation building. “We already have around 23 open prisons in Rajasthan and 7 open prisons in Andhra Pradesh. Other states need to follow the same.”

Sister Mariola has some inspiring words for women in the country, “Step in, do more in areas where you can create an impact, don’t accept the stereotype of being the weaker sex and set new examples.”

Anyay Rahit Zindagi (Arz), an NGO, which works against human trafficking in Goa, won the Stree Shakti - Devi Ahilyabai Holkar Award. Arun Pandey, one of the co-founders of ARZ says the NGO came into existence when a group of fellows at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, finished a national study on human trafficking between 1994-1997. “We work in the area of rescue, rehabilitation of victims of human trafficking as well as repatriation of women who are from other countries, apart from focusing on prosecution and legal action against traffickers.”

One of the innovations that set Arz apart has been its initiative to offer alternate livelihood through a mechanised laundry unit that has been set up in Goa. A large number of women, who have been victims of human trafficking, find employment here.

“We provide rehabilitation that is comprehensive including crèche, pick up, insurance and other facilities to these women. There is an increasing preference among women who are opting for this and we also recommend them to our industrial or corporate clients for suitable jobs, depending on their skills,” adds Arun.

Though Arz works in close collaboration with local government bodies, Arun says it is frustrating to see that “we rescue some women, rehabilitate some but due to poor law deterrence, more girls continue to fall prey to the human trafficking business. There needs to be more strict action at the source of supply of girls into this. The slow pace of justice means that many girls do not want to depose after a lapse of some years as they have been rehabilitated, so there is a big setback to the prosecution process,” he adds.

Arun insists that “we need to stop looking at women as sex objects. It has to be part of the education system as well as imbibed as part of upbringing by parents.” He adds that women “have to stop facing discrimination silently and need to come out and complain against exploitation.”

Latika Thukral was a corporate professional till 6 years ago, before she decided to do something to improve the quality of life in her city. She led an effort to set up ‘I am Gurgaon’, an NGO working in the city.

As winner of the Nari Shakti award, Latika says there is a sense of pride when she talks about the work done by the residents for creating the Aravali bio-diversity park, which has been set up in collaboration with the local administration.

At the core, Latika says it is all about “not willing to give up and persevering to do something” that drives her.

She admits that women don’t cope too well when under criticism and worry about what people have to say about them. “We have to stop being upset over criticism, and soon you realise you are an inspiration to so many other people around you,” says Latika.

Another project that has gained momentum in Gurgaon is the ‘Raahgiri’ which is also a focus area for ‘I am Gurgaon’. Latika shares plans to work on making non-motorised transport a safer alternative for residents of the city.

P Kaushalya, another winner of the Nari Shakti award, speaks of the challenges faced by her. As an HIV positive woman she has set up the Positive Women Network, engaged in advocacy on issues of women living with HIV and children affected by HIV/AIDS, and their rights at national and international forums.

PWN has 17,000 plus members and works across 13 states in India. “I still feel there aren’t sufficient resources for treatment and legal aid to women and children living with HIV, to ensure they have a life of dignity. Overall awareness is also low. There is a long way to go on this,” says Kaushalya.

Image used for representational purposes only

Upasna Pandey in New Delhi