On a pleasant Sunday in January this year, as the nation was celebrating the 65th Republic Day, a 32-year-old woman was fending off 100-odd men at a panchayat meeting in Madhya Pradesh's tribal-dominated Jhabua district.
As the sarpanch (head) of Khalkhandvi gram panchayat, Vandana
Bahadur Maida is used to such heated exchanges. But on that day, tempers had run high.
However, Vandana, who belongs to the Bhil tribe, has fought enough battles in life to back off.
Mixing firmness with mollycoddling, she had made the men see reason and assured them that their demand for electricity, more hand-pumps and ponds would be fulfilled.
For Jhabua's woman of steel, it was just another day in office.
Through sheer determination, Vandana has given woman a voice in this remote part of Jhabua district, around 170km west of Indore and nearly 250 km from capital Bhopal.
"I often have to face their (the men's) shouting. But I have learnt to work around them," says Vandana, a class eight pass and a sarpanch since 2009.
In 2013, the United Nations acknowledged Vandana's contributions in the fields of education, women empowerment and sanitation by featuring her in a women's calendar.
"Convincing women to come out of their veils and houses required a lot of effort. I started organising meetings in each phaliya (hamlet) and asked them to highlight their problems," Vandana recalls.
Women soon started matching the men in strength at the meetings of the gram sabha, which represents three villages – Khalkhandvi, Karpatya and Guradiya – with a population of more than 26,000 people.
She used the women's attendance to raise the larger issue of sanitation and convinced them the need of equipping their houses with toilets.
"Khalkhandvi today has toilets in 75% houses of the 379 houses," she adds with visible pride in her face.
Backed by a supporting husband Bahadur Maida - a graduate himself – the mother of three has addressed women empowerment meetings in Jaipur, Delhi and Ahmednagar.
She then turned her attention to education and built additional rooms in the cramped primary school. "Now, I am fighting to get a higher secondary school here," she says.
Vandana's work is, however, is far from complete.
"I felt proud when I saw women turn out in large number to cast their votes during the last assembly elections. Many of them even want to contest elections. Maybe, I will one day too," Vandana adds.
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