Pushpa Devi, an illiterate, low caste woman from a backward village in Uttar Pradesh (north India), overcame insurmountable odds to become sarpanch (head of village council) and command the grudging respect of the villagers.
Bhagwan Devi from Bihar broke the shackles of illiteracy and oppression to spearhead a movement against alcoholism in her village and its resultant violence against women.
Justice Manju Goel of the Delhi High Court does not take for granted the high respect she commands today in her profession. She remembers the time when she started her career as the first female judicial officer in West Bengal. While all her male batchmates were given comfortable postings within Kolkata city, Goel was posted quite a distance away. Most of her day was spent travelling for work. "Even if I took a day's leave, it became an issue. I was actually given a memo on one occasion," she recalls. As a woman officer of the court, she had to work harder to prove her worth.
At a recent interaction in Delhi, six successful women - three from Delhi and three from rural areas - shared their personal experiences of hardship, hurdles and triumph in hitherto male bastions, re-defining power relationships in a male-dominated society. These women represent the transformation that is taking place in metros like Delhi and extending to rural areas where women are walking along roads that were male-dominated and, until very recently, new to women.
The women symbolise a new vision of women leaders who are taking control of their lives. The six women - Pushpa Devi, Bhagwan Devi, Meenakshi Chauhan, Manju Goel, Vimla Mehra and Ramini Nirula came together under the aegis of the Hunger Project (an international NGO) and FICCI (Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry) Ladies Organisation. The meet was called, 'When Women Achieve: The World Achievers from Villages to Metros'.
The Hunger Project in India is committed to building the leadership of women in panchayats, working on the premise that when women are empowered as leaders, they can take action for the end of hunger in their own communities.
Meenakshi Chauhan, 44, is the sarpanch of Meghraj village in Sabarkantha district (Gujarat). She undertook the challenge of dealing with the acute drinking water shortage in her village. She told a village meeting that a mere 15-minute supply six days a week was grossly inadequate for a village with a population of 13,000. "If you all support me, we may be able to do something about it," she said. With the full backing and confidence of the panchayat members and villagers, Chauhan planned both short-term and long-term measures to deal with the problem.
Water tankers were arranged through a local NGO. When the Gujarat State Water Supply Board did not respond to Chauhan's proposal of building a check dam, she approached the collector and the district commissioner and submitted another proposal under the Urban Area Development Scheme. Her proposal was sanctioned on condition that the panchayat raise Rs 100,000 (1US$=Rs 46) as local contribution to the work. Chauhan found a well-wisher to contribute this sum and she roped in the Association of Engineers, Baroda, to design and supervise the construction of a dam on Vatrak river. The project was completed at one-eighth of the estimated cost, much to the shock of local officials.
"Due to this dam, we can supply drinking water for one hour each day to the whole village," Chauhan says proudly. "We built three more small dams at a cost of only Rs 100,000. The other development projects I plan to complete in my remaining two-and-a-half year tenure are construction of two roads, a primary school for our children, a community hall and housing facilities for the Maderies (nomad tribe)."
Bhagwan Devi of Muzaffarpur district (Bihar) was married off young into a large family. She was ill-treated there so she persuaded her husband to shift back to her parental village and set up home there. Shortly after, she became a member of a women's group and attended various training programmes, slowly gaining in self-belief. In 2001, when the panchayat elections were announced, Bhagwan Devi was encouraged to contest as a ward member. Her victory over two male contestants was the biggest boost to her morale. Her joy, however, was tempered by the fear that her illiteracy made her vulnerable to manipulation, so at the first opportunity she underwent a workshop for panchayat leaders. Here she learnt all about the different development programmes which would help the village people.
Pushpa Devi was also encouraged to contest the panchayat elections in May 2000. Taking on the high caste Thakur pradhan, a powerful personality in the panchayat, was a challenge in itself. Her family feared for her life and tried dissuading her from contesting the elections. But Pushpa Devi's years of hard work had earned her enough goodwill and support and she was able to push past the victory post. As the sarpanch, she ensured that the benefits of government schemes went to the needy. She encouraged the participation of Dalit (lower caste) women at Gram Sabha meetings and pushed for transparency and accountability in the functioning of the panchayat.
In the cities, women have not only been successful in male-dominated professions but have also managed to do things more innovatively. Ramini Nirula, Senior General Manager, ICICI Bank Limited, can be described as a visionary who - besides her expertise in the financial sector - has been instrumental in bringing transformation within the bank by putting a lot of value to teamwork. "Unlike men who are ambition-driven, women take the softer and more holistic approach, keeping the balance between social and work obligations," she observes.
Vimla Mehra, Joint Commissioner of Police, Crime (Women's) Cell, has worked in very challenging situations. For instance, as an Additional District Commissioner of Police in Delhi after the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, Mehra's work kept her in office for 22 hours a day. She says she has had to constantly balance her obligations of a demanding job with the demands of a family. However, she feels satisfied with the growth of the women's cell. Being a woman gave her a better perception about women's problems.
The stories of these women give encouragement to the many others who remain trapped in intolerant and stifling patriarchal settings, hoping to one day break free of the shackles preventing them from living free and healthy lives.
"These six women have built alliances and been successful in redefining power relationships," says Rita Sarin, Country Director of the Hunger Project. "They are showing us by example a new vision of leaders, one which is representative of the leadership of millions of known and unknown women in India," she adds.