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(Patna) “I was born and brought up in Kerala. While I was studying in class 9th or 10th, I heard and read that there was a lot of poverty in Bihar. Where I was born, I never saw that extent of poverty. People in Kerala would have a house and some land provided by the government. The stories of poverty from Bihar disturbed me a lot. So, when I finished high school, I joined an organization and decided to go to Bihar. 

Initially, my family did not support my decision to move to Bihar as I was the eldest child. My father said, “Study as much as you want. We won’t ever say no. Why do you need to go?” Only my grandfather told everyone, “If she wants to go, let her go! If she doesn’t like it, then she can come back.” It was a very tough decision for my family to send me so far away but I had decided to go. 

I came to Bihar in 1965. I did not start working immediately because I had many limitations. I did not know the language and everything was new to me including the culture, the food and the climate. After finishing my studies I started teaching in a girls’ school where the students came from affluent families. But I knew that I haven’t travelled so far to teach children from affluent families.  

Finally, one school gave me an opportunity to do social work and I was sent to a colony where only leprosy patients lived. A lot of people did not have fingers and they had a lot of wounds. The work was difficult in the beginning but I adjusted and they became close friends. I worked with them for 2-3 years. I felt that I was equipped to handle any situation. Gradually, I moved to the rural areas. Without telling anyone, I looked for the most needy as I had decided in my heart to work for them. These people were very simple and their life was very limited. They didn’t have anything that they could call their own. I decided I must struggle with these people. 

People from the Musahar (a section of Dalit) caste used to make alcohol and sold it from their own homes. People from all castes turned up to drink and after drinking they would sexually harass and sometimes rape women. While these people practiced untouchability in every aspect of life but not while drinking or committing sexual violence. At other times, the men would be disgusted by the same women and say, “You are a Musahar, stay inside your house!” or “How dare you come here? Leave!” But there was no untouchability while drinking and committing rape. I explained to the women in the community what rape was. They had no idea that rape was a crime. It had become such a part of their lives. They wouldn’t complain, because if they did, then the next day the customers would not come to drink. I had to tell them, “What if it happens to your daughter tomorrow? Yesterday it happened to you, tomorrow it will happen to her! If you remain a victim and don’t raise your voice then there will be no respect for you.” Finally, they got ready to file a case. So, I took up my first rape case in 1988 and went to the police station to lodge a complaint. But the police said, “Madam, how will we take up this case? She is wearing such dirty clothes! Would any man want to rape her? You tell me!” Then I told him, “Sir, we are not crazy to come here early in the morning and wait for three hours. If you don’t want to register our case then give it to us in writing.” They registered our case, when they realised that we wouldn’t leave until they lodged our complaint. We had to struggle a lot to get the accused arrested.  After filing the case, the entire family of the accused came to threaten me and the other women to take back the case. It was a real challenge dealing with threats all the time. 

Somehow, I managed to keep the women together. The women from the villages supported me a lot. In a year and a half, nine rape cases were registered. We had to block roads or surround the police station, staged dharnas, and fight with the senior police officials to get the accused arrested. I asked the women to stand up for each other. The police understood that if we took up a case, we wouldn’t let it go and they would have to take immediate action. 

We put every single one of the accused in jail for a minimum two to three years. But these incidents are becoming too common. There is dereliction of duty and negligence. Until the police have too much pressure on them, they will not do anything about a case. Even the public is now getting desensitized. No, it is not normal! It is an exception! Why must this happen to girls? If the administration is agile then people will have some fear before committing such crimes.

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We also wanted to focus on the education of minor girls. In a typical hut in a Musahar colony, they are breeding pigs in one corner while another corner is used to make alcohol. In the third corner they sleep and use the fourth corner for rest of the work. How are the children in these households going to study? So, I decided to provide a residential school for the girls. In 2005, we got a piece of land and started hostels the next year. Now there are 150 girls here in Danapur and 100 in the hostel in Gaya.

In the villages, the young girls were limited to cooking, feeding the animals and doing the dishes. Young girls, around 11-12 years old, would leave home at 10 am to pick up sticks and wood for their mud stove. Once they had collected a bundle of sticks, they would sit and gossip or sleep under a tree or pluck fruits from trees and eat them. Finally, they would go back home by 5 pm and cook food again. They had either never been to school or were early drop outs. I used to ask them to sit with me for an hour and study. But the girls would ask why should they study when they are just going to get married. When I spoke to their mothers, they said the same thing, “What’s the use of studying? They have to get married and they need to do the household chores” I would request them, “Sister, send them for one hour only and there will still be plenty of time to do chores”. In the beginning we did very little reading and writing but there was a lot of singing, dancing and games and poetry. Gradually, the girls started liking it. 

Around the same time, UNICEF began noticing our work and supported us in opening more centres. We started Kishori Kendra with UNICEF. Within 6 months of opening the first centre, I had 15 more centres and within a year grew to 50 centres. The parents realized that the kids were learning something and they started talking about it. They organised parades, sang and shouted slogans and all of this created a different environment in the entire Panchayat. We started with girls, but the mothers’ committee demanded that we take in boys too; otherwise at the time of marriage, the boys would be uneducated and the girls would be well-read. So, we started taking in boys as well.

At least 40 students live in each of our centres. I want to show our centre to all the government school officials. If our centre can function so well, then why can’t government schools? I feel very proud that so many children come to learn with us. We can’t provide them with mid-day meals as we do not have that kind of funding. But we give them a small snack like bhunja (parched grain) or boiled egg. When we started giving the snacks, the student attendance became very regular. We feel sad that a child is ready to go through four hours of waiting and studying for a tiny snack. It shows how desperate they are for food. It is not even nutritious food but simply a light snack. 

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We have programs for all ages. Many young children from the Musahar community do not get a place in the regular anganvaadi’s. We have Anand Shiksha programme that cares for these young children. We give them a clean, healthy and hygienic environment. We also have around 300 youth at our various centres. Boys who drank and played poker all day are now in our cricket team. Through cricket they started their careers, some focused on education, or in some other performing arts like dance or stunts; some started a small business. 

The medals and other achievements that they have received are a symbol of our students abilities. We want the ones good at sports to be able to join a sports academy. Sports persons have a 4% quota; we want them to benefit from this. If the Musahar community have such an environment and opportunity, they will also move forward in life. But, unfortunately, even as of today, their first task is to put food on the table.

The government promised them land but it hasn’t fulfilled its promises. The youth are studying but the education doesn’t get them even a small job. They don’t have any land or any money? If they work for an entire day they can only manage to buy their meals. Wherever I go, I ask people what their wages are. Yesterday, in a village, they told me that they get one bag of pulses after carrying 18 bags of it throughout the day.

We need a government and people in power who make schemes for these people to be sensitive to their needs. This will not happen if they sit in an air-conditioned room in Delhi! It cannot be done by just sitting in Parliament. They have to see the ground realities. Today, some of the women are working in agriculture. Some are working in poultry, food processing, and some have started a kitchen garden. About 150-200 women now work in the poultry. In a way, I feel a few NGOs are doing the work of the government. That is why this nation is still intact.

There is always an event on International Women’s Day which is attended by hundreds of women. On one such occasion, women that worked in food processing area and kitchen gardens set up stalls for other women to see and learn what the women in Naari Gunjan are doing. This is how we built trust and expanded work on other blocks too. We work on food processing and agriculture as well. This creates a belief that the Naari Gunjan works for them. I also share with them my experiences. 

It is necessary to spread the thought that if you live, you live not for yourself but for others. Have some space in your heart and soul for other people. Give them an opportunity and show them the way to move forward. I have also heard from many people that if everybody starts studying then who will farm? Who will work in agriculture and take care of the cattle? There are some people who think like that and feel status quo is ok. They want to let others be at the bottom because it benefits them. This sort of attitude is very negative and it is necessary to change it.”

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