Creating a brave new world, despite all odds
Bharat Dogra, New Delhi
May 12, 2017

The resilience of women from disadvantaged sections equips them with a unique capacity to achieve, given the opportunity. Voluntary organisations such as Disha, recognising the potential, are working to open doors for them in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. Here is the story of some unsung heroes – Rajjo, Roshan, Jahooran, Shahnaaz, Ramrati, Naseema and Mukesh

Baba Amte once said that what deprived people need is not so much charity as opportunity. This is particularly true of women from the weaker sections. The sincerity of these women, their empathy with those who suffer and their capacity for hard work endow them with a great capability to achieve. All they need is opportunities. Voluntary organisations play an important role in recognising and nurturing the vast reservoir of dormant potential and helping to provide suitable openings for people to capitalise on them.

The work of Disha, a social organisation in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, provides several interesting examples of remarkable progress made by women from weaker sections. Disha’s work is mainly concentrated in three contiguous blocks in Saharanpur and Dehradun Districts though it has spread to some other parts of the two states as well. The organisation concentrates on enhancing livelihood opportunities for weaker sections as well as on wider social reforms. Gender equality and justice and fighting all aspects of discrimination are very important parts of the mobilisation and reform effort.

A show of solidarity by women in Uttar Pradesh’s Saharanpur District. Over the years, women across India have been fighting for gender equality and justice.

As a result of interventions by Disha, several women from weaker sections have come forward to accept big responsibilities. Recognising their courage and initiative, the organisation has extended help and encouragement to them. With such support, they have overcome many constraints and made remarkable contributions to social progress.

Rajjo is one such woman. She is from a cobbler household. When I asked her for her full name, she replied, “Just write Rajjo. Everyone calls me Rajjo here.” This simple, humble woman served as vice-chairperson of the Sultanpur Chilkana Town Area Committee for several years. She was elected to the post and fulfilled her responsibilities in such a remarkable way that people from weaker sections still remember how Rajjo helped them. Recently, when I was walking with her along village streets to interview people, many passersby stopped to exchange greetings with her. She blessed some of them and enquired about the health and well-being of others.

People recall that when Rajjo held office, she took the initiative to find about pending problems of people, collected the necessary papers and went to Saharanpur to sort out the issues with higher officials there. She was the perfect foil for the chairperson, Suraiya Begum, who had constraints about going out often. Rajjo was always willing and eager to go to out to sort out the problems of people.

Though she was of huge help to others, Rajjo never used her position to obtain any undue benefits for herself. Frail, petite, but very quick in her movements, Rajjo continues to lead a very simple and unassuming life, genuinely unmindful of all the great work that she has done. She may not be vice-chairperson any longer, but she is still as willing as before to provide any help within her capacity.

Roshan was born into a poor family and had to take up rope work to help her family. She loved going to school, but circumstances made it difficult for her to continue her formal education. A friend introduced her to Disha and she was able to help rope in other artisans in her community and organise self-help groups. She found the work satisfying and her creative talents, which had languished after her school days, began to flower again. She began writing lyrics and singing as part of Disha’s cultural team.

Jahooran and her daughter Shahnaaz came from a very poor background but they overcame many hardships to make important contributions to Disha’s health programs and its anti-liquor campaign. Ramrati, a Dalit woman from Pather Village, also overcame extreme economic hardship to make a very important contribution to the anti-liquor movement. She was honoured by UPVAN, a state-level network of voluntary organisations.

Disha runs an important pro-gram to help women in distress. Several women who are victims of violence contact the organisation. It is remarkable that some of them not only recovered due to help provided by Disha, but also joined efforts to help other women in distress. There is Naseema, who overcame her past as a victim of abuse to become a leading activist against gender violence in two districts. She has been associated with helping dozens of distressed women. Mukesh, with help and encouragement from Disha, was able to win a panchayat election and help needy women.

To tap the potential of women as activists and leaders, Disha has been working with adolescent girls at various levels, forming discussion groups and providing education, particularly to those from minority communities, who were unable to access schools or had to drop out for one reason or another. The organisation even helped some of the girls to re-enter mainstream education.

In a documentary made on the work of Disha, a young woman activist asks her grandmother—“Daadi, if you could choose, would you choose your times or the present one?” Her grandmother replies, “I would choose the present, because daughters like you are trying to create a brave new world despite all problems.”

March 2017