In her first public speech at the UN recently, Malala Yousafzai, the 16-year-old Pakistani activist shot in the head by the Taliban last year, said she was hugely inspired by the philosophy of non-violence of Mahatma Gandhi.
Indeed, the struggles of women in the subcontinent are similar in many ways. Here are stories of girls from across India who, like Malala, overcame familial and societal resistance to fight against gender prejudices.
Rangila Medhi, 60 (Sakuapara, Assam)
Issue: Campaigns for child and adult literacy
‘If you are illiterate, then you are a dead person walking’
Unlike others, Rangila Medhi counts her age from the moment she began to read and write. So at 60, she is 20 years old. “If you are illiterate, then you are a dead person walking. And I was lifeless until the summer of 1993,” she says. She probably would have stayed ‘dead’ had Mohila Deka, a 20-year-old volunteer for an adult literacy programme, not dragged her to a courtyard school.
For Rangila, it was a quirk of fate. On a similar day in 1963, her father had dragged her home from school. Rangila was 10 then. She is now the head of the school’s managing committee. She is also a pep talk visitor to the Sakaupara high school and at a private Assamese medium school. Today, some 22,000 people across 15 villages cite her example to push for girls’ education.
“I work in other people’s paddy fields for a living. But I never miss an opportunity to campaign for literacy,” says Rangila, a spinster who has since 2012 conducted Swakshar Bharati exams for more than 100 adults. She has touched around 3,000 lives by coercing them to strive beyond literacy. And through the adults, she targets the children.
But why did she take 18 years after the death of her father to study? “Working to survive mattered more,” she says. The need dawned after a few locals tried to fraudulently cash in a cheque she received as the secretary of a group of women weavers. An NGO affiliated to the Adult Literacy Mission arrived around that time. Rangila’s life changed over the next six years.
She has published two books including a compilation of Assamese poems. Her next mission is to learn Hindi.
— Rahul Karmakar
Usha Vishwakarma, 25 (Lucknow, UP)
Issue: Started a group to fight sexual harassment
‘We decided that safety was our first concern’
Usha Vishwakarma, 25, daughter of a daily wage labourer, became the victim of a rape attempt some years ago. She managed to escape but was affected by the incident. Meanwhile, harassment and lewd remarks by men was becoming a regular phenomenon and affecting the lives of the girls living in her area.
This inspired Usha to form an all girls’ group called the ‘Red Brigade’. ‘An eye for an eye and a kick for every misbehaviour’ became the mantra for this group of girls led by Usha that today stand out to dissuade the male fraternity of Madiaon area, where the girls live.
“Most of the girls in my group are victims of molestation and abuse. Some have been hit by their own family members and neighbours. But we decided to put an end to this,” says Usha.
Talking about her group that has empowered girls, Usha says, “When we united all young victims and began to retaliate the harassment and other incidents of crimes happening to us, we faced huge criticism. Our parents, neighbours and everyone went against us. But we had decided that our safety was the first concern to us.”
Usha began to help the girls emotionally and financially. Be it fighting for the rights of any girl in the locality or getting children admitted to school, Usha is the first one to stand for anyone.
Usha also organised several martial arts workshop in association with some city schools to train girls for self defence. The latest among them being a free self defence training imparted to the Red Brigade by an internationally renowned trainer Debi Steven.
Fascinated by the works of the Red Brigade and the difference it brought, the story of Usha has been carried by various national and international journals. A documentary was also shot by a German production house.
Usha got the national bravery award for working against sexual violence by Kapil Sibal, IT minister, in May this year. Usha is now a synonym of women empowerment and has invitations from many countries to visit and discuss her ideas of empowerment. And Usha, a graduate, is learning English to be able to communicate better during her visits.
— Richa Srivastava
Vaibhavi Ulmale, 18 (Chandrapur, Maharashtra)
Issue: With a group of friends, tackles issues of child marriage and abuse
‘Now every man thinks twice before harassing a girl from our village’
When she lost her father at the age of 10, Vaibhavi Ulmale’s mother told her “Big girls don’t cry’’. She turned that into a motto. At 18 now, she has made Sidur, her village in Maharashtra’s Chandrapur district, a safer place for girls.
Ulmale is leading a squad of girls in her village with the help of Unicef, teaching them to fight sexual harassment and child marriage. Thanks to their efforts, these incidents have come down in the village. Ulmale says she found her strength after a harrowing stalking experience. A few years ago, she was stalked by a 50-year-old man.
Ulmale was shocked at his audacity: he was known to her parents. Like most victims of sexual harassment, she first blamed herself. But later she found she wasn’t the only one. Other girls too were complaining. “That’s when I decided to stop being a victim,’’ she says. Ulmale convinced her friends to fight their tormentor.
One day, the sight of the man teasing her friend infuriated her. “We chased and hit him with our fists and our bags. It was empowering,’’ she says. The incident drew the attention of other villagers who forced the man to leave the village. “The news spread and now every man thinks twice before harassing a girl from our village,” says a proud Ulmale.
Their squad strengthened. With the help of Unicef’s ‘Deepshikha’ group, they learned about women’s rights and started campaigning against child marriage.
Ulmale managed to stop the marriage of her 17-year-old friend. “We convinced the parents to wait till the boy and girl reached the legal age of marriage,’’ she says. For her efforts, Ulmale was honoured by the Unicef ‘Navjyoti’ award last year.
Manpreet Kaur, 17 (Amritsar, Punjab)
Issue: This teenaged teacher tries to empower girls through education
‘I was keen to study further but parents had no money to support my wish’
Seventeen-year-old Manpreet Kaur is enthusiastic about spreading education. This is because despite her desire to study further she was not allowed to attend school by her parents for two years, who cited shortage of funds, though they did everything to send their son to school.
Manpreet, who is presently studying in plus one, works as a teacher at two schools — the free school and Oxford Modern School, her alma mater from where she did her matriculation. “While my morning hours are devoted to my school, I teach at the free school in the evening,” she says.
“Barring my brother, who has done plus two, my siblings have not studied beyond a few classes. Paying school fees was an uphill task as we were usually short of money. The little that my parents earned was spent on buying medicines for my mother, who doesn’t remain well,” says Manpreet.
Manpreet’s father Bua Singh works as a mason, while her mother Amarjit Kaur is a daily wage earner. Though the family had never been financially well off, they managed to send their six children — five girls and one son to school for a few years. Two of the elder girls are married, one is betrothed and another one is a seamstress. The son works as a clerk in an office.
“I told my parents I wanted to study too, but they could not support my education. I felt bad that many of my school friends were attending higher classes, but I was forced to stay at home after matriculation,” she says. However, her quest to pursue education led her to the free school run by Mithun, a teenaged waiter. “The school caters to the children of destitutes at Nangli village. Mithun promised to support my education if I worked hard,” she says.
As a payback, Manpreet joined the school as a teacher. “My dream is to empower girls like myself through the medium of education,” she says. “Manpreet is a hardworking girl — both as far as her own education and teaching at the school is concerned. The school pays her a salary of Rs. 500 per month, besides taking care of her academic needs,” says Mithun.
Bua Singh says he was aware of his daughter’s desire to study further, but could not support her given the family’s poor financial health. He adds that besides Manpreet, he had four other daughters, whom he had to marry off.
“I wanted to support her education, but wasn’t able to. However, I’m proud that my daughter has finally regained access to education through her efforts and help from a benefactor,” he says.
— Shaheen P Parshad
Jyoti Yadav, 13 (Jaipur, Rajasthan)
Issue: Fights to get equals rights for widows
‘I wanted them to get their self-respect back’
A 13-year old girl, Jyoti Yadav, student of class VII of a remote village Dhani Dabadwas in Alwar district has brought a metamorphosis to the lives of around 50 widows as she fought against the mindset of the villagers. Yadav’s campaign ‘Respect for Widows in Society’ has been awarded by the 2012 Pramerica Spirit of Community Awards in the US.
Her fight started with the injustice shown to her mother who lost her husband 14 years ago. Jyoti took the help of her teacher to change the psyche of the villagers who considered widows as second rate citizens. “I would see my mother cry as she was not allowed to move in the village or attend marriages because people considered widows to be inauspicious. I wanted to get their self-respect back along with employability,” she says. Today her mother, Mukesh Yadav, works as an anganbari worker in the village.
Jyoti initially tried to talk to the villagers, but nobody listened. Then she took the help of Sangeeta Yadav, head teacher of Satya Bharti Government Upper Primary School, Dabadwas where she studies. Jyoti and Sangeeta met the sarpanch and helped get her mother an anganwadi worker’s job.
Sarpanch Bhagwati Devi says the young girl did a lot to get respect and employment for the village widows. “Villagers were told not to shun widows and meetings were held with women. This change in our part of society came through persuasion.”
Today, approximately 20 widows of Dhani Dabadwas, Dabadwas and Beeranwas villages are employed in communities like Asha Sahayonis, Asha Sahayikas and in education centres. Around 30 widows have been given jobs in Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) on priority.
“I feel proud of my daughter. Several widows have benefited from her work. Now I walk freely without the pardah (veil) and attend marriages,” says her mother Mukesh. At the last Republic Day, Mukesh was made the chief guest of the function at the government school.
— P Srinivasan
Shailja, 29 (Nilambur, Kerala)
Issue: Works to prevent underage marriages
‘Education, though late, has helped me stand up against social evils’
A school dropout, Shailja, 29, can pen English poems now. She was 13 when she was married off. Though she pleaded with her parents to let her study, the protests fell on deaf ears. Now things have changed. Shailja is among the 2,519 candidates who took an oath in the Muslim majority town of Nilambur (Malappuram district in north Kerala) last week not to marry off their wards before the permissible age.
Come September and her municipality, Nilambur, will be the first fully matriculate town of the country. “My son is in the ninth standard and I help him these days. Late education has helped me to stand up against social evils. For us, knowledge is an instrument to change our life,” says Shailja.
‘Sameeksha’, an innovative educational project of the municipality with the help of state literacy mission, is set to change the face of the once sleepy town, notorious for child marriages and dowry. Two years back, it became the first dowry-free town of the country.
“Sameeksha is not just a Class X certificate exam. By empowering our people we hope to eliminate social evils like early marriage and exploitation of women,” says Aryadan Shoukat, 43, municipality chairman and brainchild of the programme. The effort beganafter a survey when it was found that there are 2519 non-matriculates in the town. Majority were women: auto drivers, anganwadi helpers, house maids. “We need more Malala Yousafzai-like girls. My town wants to prove education is the best way to fight social maladies,” he says.
— Ramesh Babu