The traditional clutches of helplessness and dependency are forever gone from their lives, and now women like Meena are taking the next steps by making sure children go to school and complete their education.'
Dalit Struggles in Marathwada
Sanjay Suman (CRY) shares how dalit empowerment is slowly ending caste hegemony in Marathwada; November 10, 2008
Meena Londe is no longer who she used to be. Not so long ago, it was the custom to hide if she saw a strange man in the vicinity. Talking to a man who was not from the family was out of question. 'We were taught from childhood that it's against the custom for women to come out and talk freely', she says.
Coming from a dalit family did not make it any easier. Meena was used to seeing her husband get beaten up for something as minor as asking for his full wages from the dominant castes in the village. Decades of such treatment had led to a feeling of general helplessness. All protests were limited to remain within the family.
'This was the situation in which we found woman 5 years ago, when we started work in the area', says BP Suryavanshi, from Kalapandhari Magas Vargiya and Adivasi Gramin Vikas Sanstha (KMVAGVS). 'We would go almost every day and try and talk to women separately, then gradually, as they got used to the idea, in self-help groups. We realized that a lot of anger and the will to change things was there, it only needed to be openly expressed.' From this anger, women like Meena from Wangdari, a village in Latur, Maharashtra, realized that the lands that they till on daily wages are actually theirs.
Powered by this belief, villages in Wangdari started cultivating the common pasturelands around the village collectively. This left the dominant castes in the village outraged, 'They thought, these people who were our daily wage slaves till yesterday, how can we let them become self-reliant?�' explains Suryavanshi. The local power elite threatened men from familys like Meena. 'But I stood in front of the men and told them, 'if you have the power try and touch my husband and then I'll show you what we can do.' Recalls Meena.
Once, just as the men got tractors to work on the field, they were stopped by the dominant castes. Meena and her friends came forward and said, 'If you are afraid you be here , but we'll work on the field.' Following word by deed, they all formed a group and went to the field for work.
A typical SHG meeting in the village comprises sitting together and discussing various issues that they face in their day to day life, such as the use of common water taps. In Wangdari, these women are now fighting to get equal access to water since the so-called 'upper' castes try to restrict their access.
The difference between Meena's group in Wangdari and other women can be seen when we meet other women of the same caste who are still living in the same traditional manner of extreme discrimination , where the women are not allowed to come out of their homes or talk to strangers, for fear of being tagged as a 'bad character'.
In a first, Meena recently stood for the Deputy Sarpanch elections. Although she lost the elections, the very fact that a dalit women (the last and the least of the village's citizens) could stand for elections is a tremendous source of pride and faith for the community in general and women in particular. They put up a spirited demand for equal wages, with the result that are getting Rs. 40 - double of what they were getting earlier and the same as men's daily wages. Since they have their own lands to till now, an interesting aside is that the local 'upper' castes have to plead with them to get any work done on their fields now. 'Earlier, they would call us by our caste names, used almost like abuses, Aye Maan! Or Aye Mahar! They'd say. Now they speak to us with respect and ask us, Could you come today? The most important things is that now we know that getting work is our right and not a favour.'
Nieghbouring villages like Dighol Deshmukh are taking a leaf from Meena's book. A self-help group is forming fast. In Kajalhipargha, as many as 16 Mahila Gats have formed, with 10 women in each gat. The Mahila Gat gives loans to the men whenever required, especially for emergencies like hospitalization.
'If we don't do anything to improve our lot, we'll remain underdeveloped', says Meena. The traditional clutches of helplessness and dependency are forever gone from their lives, and now women like Meena are taking the next steps by making sure children go to school and complete their education.