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Changing The World – One Couple At A Time
It was August. Bundelkhand, after many years had witnessed good rains. The fields had turned into a light shade of green. The green, instead of the brown parched earth, brimming with energy, life and optimism was a fitting prelude to our meeting.
We were in Chitrakoot, a district in Uttar Pradesh, and were headed to Kaimaha village to meet a few women leaders who were working to end domestic violence within their community; some of these women were survivors of domestic violence themselves.
Vanangana, one of Oxfam India’s partners working towards ending violence against women and girls, have formed Dalit Mahila Samitis or women collectives across several villages in the district. These collectives, work as vigilance committees and provide support to the other women in the community who are victims of domestic violence. Nearly 3500 women are members of these Samitis.
On reaching the village, we were received warmly by the women. It was a mixed group of the old and the young, the shy and the confident but they all seemed to be equally fired with the commitment to the cause and passion to bring a difference. One lady, in her sixties, however, stood out with her confidence and her understanding for the cause. Ramkali.
Ramkali, a member of the Dalit Mahila Samiti, over the years groomed herself to be the confident woman leader whose respect and influence goes beyond the confines of her village. Once at a wedding of an upper caste family in the village she refused to eat food because others of her community weren’t being treated with respect. The villagers, followed her, boycotted the wedding and returned home. Such was her influence. And it continues to be so. She is the guiding light for others in the village to stop caste atrocities and violence against women and girls.
In our heads, we were just beginning to pat our backs for being able to create a ‘Ramkali’. Our meeting was over and we prepared to leave. Ramkali insisted we have tea at her place before we left. Sensing our hesitation, a few women said the tulsi tea would be totally worth our while. So after our goodbyes to the rest of them, we left with her.
As we were making ourselves comfortable at her place, we could hear her giving instructions to someone inside to get some tulsi leaves. In the meanwhile as we resumed our talk, a 70-year old bespectacled man entered the room with a big bunch of tulsi leaves and a bigger smile. As he settled down, weeding out the bad leaves, he joined in our conversation. This was Ramkaran, her spouse, spoke on a range of issues — from the looming agriculture crisis to the impact it had on women, from women empowerment and the strength it lent to the society at large. His insights were refreshing, to say the least.
He excused himself and went in to prepare tea for us. They were the epitome of what good partners could do for each other. When they got married, Ramkali was not literate. Ramkaran ensured that she was trained to read and write. Instead of confining her to the house, he encouraged her to become member of different women groups. The once-shy Ramkali now holds meetings across villages. Ramkaran clearly has played a big role in Ramkali’s coming into her own over the years.
While he had been her strength over the years, she had reciprocated by supporting him in his work. Ramkaran is a kotedaar (license-holder to run a Public Distribution Shop) and like Ramkali, is well respected in the village. The couple run the shop together in a very transparent manner, ensure that everyone gets their fair share, and that there are no discrepancies in the distribution of the ration.
The lilting aroma of the tulsi chai announced his re-entry into our midst. Giving us our cups, he said “Agar khud kee iccha aur parivaar ka saath na ho to koi bhi aage nahi badh sakta”. Loosely translated it meant that without one’s own desire and the support of the family, no one could make any progress. His next line came as an eye opener. “Whatever you do to empower a woman, it will fizzle out if she doesn’t get the support from her family and her partner.”
Just as we were beginning to pat our backs, in our head, Ramkaran brought us back to reality that while empowering women was important, it was equally significant to engage with the men. Men, have a very critical role in ending violence against women and girls. Therefore to create an equal and a just society; men and boys should become agents of change.
Ramkalis’ and Ramkarans’ are clearly the need of the hour. The tea was excellent as was the conversation. We bid our goodbyes.
On our way back to Lucknow, we once again passed the green fields. The shoots, with the right amount of water and sunlight, will one day provide the much needed food and relief to all. Just like Ramkali, who with the support from Ramkaran, had groomed herself and was striving to make her village, patriarchy and violence-free.
Written by: Avinash Singh, Coordinator- Programme Management, Oxfam India
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