Until she was 26, Vidya Kutade spent her life in a 40-square-feet prison that was her kitchen.
She couldn’t even step out to offer tea to guests; she would hand it to her husband instead.
Now the Class 8 dropout travels alone to Mumbai, 120 kilometres to the south, to haggle with bureaucrats at the state secretariat over development funds, sprinkling her conversation with phrases like ‘follow-up’, ‘project’ and ‘record-keeping’.
Hers is a journey that mirrors thousands of life-changing ones across 90 villages in the Thane district, where 280 women’s self-help groups add up small savings, run self-employment schemes and help implement government development programmes.
Ahead of the state election, the estimated 2,500 women involved in the campaign are opinion leaders in the region, demanding a greater voice for women in government.
“Arre, I used to be like them,” says Kutade (38), wearing a nylon sari, the pleats on her shoulder pinned to her blouse and a faux leather purse on her shoulder.
She points to a tribal woman walking down the winding roads of Mokhada taluka, part of a Thane district, wearing a washed-out blue blouse and a knee-length wraparound.
“Now every woman in my village wants to dress like me.”
Kutade, a mother of three from the Warli tribe, became a new woman in 1997, when she defied social restrictions, emerged from her mud-walled hut and joined a women’s self-help group started by local volunteers.
“Earlier, I would step out of the home only to work in the paddy fields,” she says. “Even when there were guests at home, we women would make tea and hand over the cups to the men from the kitchen.”
Her Adivasi Mahila Sangh (Tribal Women’s Federation) works in groups of 10 in Thane’s remotest villages, helping implement schemes under the National Rural Health Mission.
“We have been telling the government, ‘Give us your projects. We will implement them’. Schemes aahet pan koni follow-up karat nahi (There are schemes, but nobody follows up),” says Kutade, speaking slowly.
The federation has helped farmers build 36 wells and repair 52 others, and started an innovative campaign to fight malnutrition.
Every group prepares daily meals with cereals like ragi and wheat for malnourished children and their mothers, and monitors their weight.
“Self-help groups have given many tribal women direction,” says Kutade, fidgeting with her cell phone. “Otherwise they would, like the men, be lying drunk all the time.”
Her chubby colleague Pramila Gode (33) sits next to her. She didn’t have such an easy ride.
“Mi tar maar pan khaalla aahe (I’ve even been beaten up),” she says, laughing mischievously and using words like RCH (reproductive child health) and PHCs (primary health centres) when she speaks.
Over the past 11 years, her group has gone from village to village, educating people about the government’s health schemes.
“We got government officials to come and interact with the villagers,” says Gode, who, like Kutade, got married when she was barely 15. “We managed to put the public distribution system in place.”
But work has not absolved the two women of domestic responsibilities.
They wake up at 5 am and finish washing up and cooking before they leave home to visit villages, often covering the hilly area on foot.
When they vote on October 13, these women leaders hope to see more women in the state legislature.
“What is the demand for reservations for women? Thirty-three per cent, isn’t it?’ Kutade turns around and asks Gode. “We say it should be 50.”