Two weeks back I met Gautami (name changed) in a small village in Central UP. After a long trail through cowsheds and mud houses, we finally reached her beautiful house, which stood right next to a hand pump. The two houses opposite hers were large brick houses, possibly of the local moneylenders or the sitting Pradhan (I should have asked). On my way to her place, I learn that she lives with her husband and children, while her brother-in-law and sister-in-law live round the corner.
We reach her house, only to find that she has already laid out a khatiya (cot) and a few plastic chairs for us to sit in front of her house under a thatched roof. Given that I wanted to speak to her in detail about her journey before and since she joined her Self Help Group (SHG), I request if we could go inside the house and speak to her, so as to not attract attention of the passers by. Inside, we settle down on another khatiya with some chai, aloo bhujia and biscuits. I ask her to tell me something about herself- her family, how she joined her SHG, her journey since then, and her growing interest in participation in Panchayats.
Gautami joined her SHG way back in 2008, when a team of mobilizers came to her village and convinced her to join her SHG to overcome poverty. Soon those in her village started questioning her about her whereabouts and taunting her for travelling outside her village to attend meetings. The Field Officer managing her block advised her to ignore their taunts and just focus on her work. She soon travelled to Andhra Pradesh to visit SHGs there and see how they functioned. Upon coming back, she had constant fights with her husband, who was under pressure from the taunts of his family members and other villagers. She decided to take him along for her SHG meetings, so that he could experience them for himself. When he heard her speak to the other women, he changed his mind, and started supporting her in her work and allowed her to go wherever she wanted! Since then there have been no fights regarding the matter.
Gautami has 4 daughters and 1 son. She first borrowed Rs.500 from her SHG to admit her daughter to high school. She then borrowed Rs.3000 to open a shop that would be managed by her husband. Through their earnings, she paid back their mortgage. She then borrowed Rs.5000 to buy a cow, followed by money get her eldest daughter married, for which her Village Organization (federation of SHGs at GP level) also provided monetary support. When her husband fell ill and was in coma, she was also able to borrow Rs.80,000 from her SHG to get him treated!
For Gautami, the biggest achievement of joining her SHG, however, has been gaining a sense of identity. She says (earlier) nobody knew her, whereas now people come to their house looking for her! She has not only made an identity for herself in her village, but also in her sasuraal (family she is married into).
She also mentions how she practiced purdah (veil) ever since she was 18 years old, often tripping over things that came in her way. Nobody recognized her, and she didn’t recognize anybody. Once she even forgot her way to her house from the field as she could barely see anything through her veil and all the routes looked the same!
She says her SHG has never asked her for anything other than her time- to attend trainings, learn new things and meet new people! For her, her SHG is the biggest resource she has.
I ask her how she first thought about participating in local governance (Panchayat), and she says she didn’t know much about the Panchayat Raj system until she attended a training we did at her Village Organization. That’s where she first learnt about Gram Sabha meetings, her rights and the necessity of women’s participation in local governance. That’s when she thought- why not contest this time? (UP Panchayat elections are in October this year).
Upon probing her further on why she is motivated to contest the elections, she says that the current Pradhan (village chief) doesn’t listen to poor, lower caste people, or give them their due share of government schemes and entitlements. If she wins the elections, she says she will first roam the village and see what is needed- colony, pension, health services… and then figure out what can be done. She has already helped an SHG member from a neighbouring village when her house caught fire, as well as helped resolve bank issues for her fellow SHG members.
Gautami is from the Scheduled Caste (SC) community, and adamant on contesting the upcoming elections, irrespective of whether the seat is reserved for women, for SCs, or is a general category seat. Members of her Village Organization are keen to support her and campaign for her as they have seen her progress from being very poor and uninformed, to (today) looking to fight the Panchayat elections – for the benefit of her fellow women as well as the development of her village!
Gautami’s story is nothing short of inspiring, and I am amazed to see her confidence, calm, and optimism, and the support of her husband and family in her endeavours 🙂