Abha Bhaiya, 57, sees herself as a product of the last wave of the feminist movement of the 1970s. In 1984, she set up Jagori, a women's resource, documentation and communications centre. She was also among the first women in India to take up the issue of single women, putting them on the agenda of the feminist movement.
When Bhaiya began work in the '70s, single women and their lives did not find huge prominence even within the feminist movement. Violence against women, leadership among rural women, women's contribution to the country's economy, documentation of the lives, achievements and the traditional knowledge of women were all issues that needed to be strongly brought into focus.
One of the unique features of Bhaiya's work has been the creation of linkages between the community and international arenas. She has used the spaces at various levels to architect and evolve a strategy for the coming together of a large number of women's groups, exposing the blindness of mainstream discourse. Through her work, she has also created a fresh idiom for feminist expression in terms of language and space.
Bhaiya has been equally concerned with rights of marginalized communities, especially Dalit and tribal women. Her work is aimed at assisting rural women emerge as independent leaders.
Bhaiya had to rebel against her middleclass, conservative Marwari family in Rajasthan to eke out an identity for herself. Her family did not place a premium on education, and Bhaiya's life as a child and young person was a constant struggle. She had to fight to get an education and to choose a profession. She constantly challenged traditions, expectations and social taboos, including the institutions of marriage, family and motherhood.
She remembers: "I could not imagine living in a conservative family as a married daughter-in-law, confined to home and domesticity. However, within my social context, I had no other role model. I knew what I did not want but every time my mother asked me 'what is it you do want', I drew a blank."
Although Bhaiya's relationship with her mother was rather strained, some values she inherited from her mother continue to be the touchstone by which she lives her life. One of these tenets is that she must have the strength to manage with minimal resources in all kinds of circumstances. This has helped her emerge a survivor over and over in trying situations.
Because of the extreme pressure her parents were putting on her to get married, Bhaiya was forced to run away from home to work in an ashram. At that time, she was 21 years old and had just completed a post-graduate course in philosophy. At the ashram, she educated deprived girls and lived a simple self-dependent life. The ashram was run by a British woman, Sarla Behn, a follower of Gandhi.
Bhaiya did not have enough money or resources, and life was not easy. But she struggled on. Then, her father pleaded with her to return home. She returned home on two conditions: one, that she would not be pressured about marriage, and two, she would not be prevented from continuing to work.
During this period, Bhaiya asked a close friend, Kamla Bhasin, who was studying in Germany at that time, to help her get a scholarship to study social work in Germany. With Bhasin's help, Bhaiya managed to get the scholarship and studied social work in Germany for two years. She also worked as a daily wage earner to support herself during this time.
She returned from Germany in 1971 and joined a post-graduate course in social work as she realized that a degree within the socio-political context is essential to work in India. Bhaiya was sent to Hyderabad to complete her fieldwork and decided to join a community development organization working in the slums here. She worked there for four years and then joined a rural development organization and started working in villages in and around Hyderabad. This was a period of tremendous growth as she grappled with the politics of poverty and powerlessness. This is the time Bhaiya started looking at the question of women's oppression and subordination.
Bhaiya and group of friends set up a film collective to make four films on women's participation in struggles. This was primarily to make visible the contribution of working women to the economy of the nation.
Bhaiya has been consistently and defiantly working towards women's empowerment at the community, regional, national and international level.
She has contributed immensely towards the collective dignity of women and creating a sense of freedom and fearlessness in imagining a feminist utopia. Bhaiya's work on the preservation and importance of traditional knowledge systems is also crucial. She has also contributed greatly to health issues, particularly reproductive health, population policy and alternative health systems.
Besides women's issues and human rights issues, Bhaiya is also deeply involved with the issue of communal violence.
Bhaiya's association with organizations dealing with very different, though ultimately interconnected, issues over the past three decades is also indicative of the range of her vision. She is the founder-member of Nishtha, a Himachal Pradesh-based NGO that works on rural health; a member of FREA, a documentation/research centre in Mumbai; a member of Ankur, an educational centre for women and children in New Delhi; founder-member of Olakh, a women's resource centre in Gujarat; and is also founder-member of Mahila Samakhya's national resource group.
She has worked consistently to shape the feminist movement and in the process has also been shaped by the movement. She and her peers have evolved a more holistic view of what development or sustainable development could be defined as. Bhaiya has also worked out a beautiful synthesis between the movement at the ideological plane and the involvement of women in the movement at the practical level. She has addressed through this the realities of the rural marginalized women.
Although rural, marginalized women have been the focus of her work, Bhaiya's work has also touched and influenced the lives of all women with the creation of a feminist consciousness. Also, her representation of NGOs at international levels has also ensured the appropriation of that space to work out a collective strategy for women's groups. She aims to ensure a clear interface between the various levels - from community to the international - at which she works.
Another remarkable feature of her work has been her assistance to small women's groups, helping them evolve. It is also typical of her style of functioning that she has evolved a truly decentralized method of working, with a firm belief in collective strength and involvement.