Being the voice of her community

Being the voice of her community

Shakuntala Harpal, 45, is a Dalit leader in Harichandrapur Village, India. Shakuntala has worked for many years to help the women and girls in her village exercise their basic rights. Shaktunala helps women who experience violence seek justice and support services, she helps widows get access to their pensions, and she mentors the girls in her village to stand up for their rights. 

This is her story: 

My name is Shakuntala Harpal, I am close to 45 years old. I work as a daily wage labourer to earn money.  I used to work as a panchayat leader. I was a ward member for two terms. 

I help the women in my village in many ways. I help widows to get their pensions and rice. There is a scheme where they can get 10kgs/month through the block office. It is a long process and so I help them with it. There is another scheme – after the death of a wage earner in a family, they can get 20,000 INR – this is also complicated, so I help them. 

In cases of violence, for women who get beaten, I call the police and help to file cases, bring women to the appointments. I find the police helpful, but think that’s because I was a ward member.

I am a dalit and I work for village members, so I help to bring whatever comes from the block level to the village level.

I don’t have land in my name but I help others to get land. I work in the tribal forest area, but so far I haven’t received any land. I’ve encroached some land and I pay taxes – but the papers aren’t in my name. It will come to me eventually.

There are barriers to helping women, but I get a lot of support from the village because I was a ward member for so long.

For example – one time there was a man in the village. He had a 3-month-old child. He kept beating his wife, and so I called the police. They came, and he questioned why I could intervene, but the villagers are supportive of my role. He apologized to his wife (he was drunk).

It is common for men to use alcohol as an excuse and people often say that if they stop drinking they stop beating their wives.  But in those cases where the men aren’t drunk – women have to want help. I try to support those women.

My husband was also a drunkard. I would stop cooking for him and refuse to let him in our house if he was drunk. We helped shut down 9 liquor shops. Community members asked how I could tell other husbands to stop drinking if my husband drank, but he also stopped soon.

Ever since Creating Spaces project started here, people have understood that girls should be 18 before they get married. That they need to go to school and should get some independence.

I have a daughter and two grandsons. My daughter was 19, or maybe younger when she got married. Her school had shut down and so she was at home for 2 years doing nothing – so we married her off.

In five years, I hope that more girls go out to study, that more people have houses (now there are only 2 in our village)

I will help the other women leaders, and support them – the work is for the village.

What is Creating Spaces?
Creating Spaces is an Oxfam Canada flagship project that takes action to reduce violence against women and girls (VAWG), including child, early and forced marriage in 6 countries - Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Philippines, and Nepal.

By helping change the attitudes, behaviours, and systems that perpetuate violence against women and girls through-

  1. Creating spaces for support: Women who experience violence often lack access to support services. Creating Spaces improves access to social services, medical assistance, counselling, job training, and legal aid. Support provides women with tools to take control of their lives and to build a better future.
  2. Creating spaces for justice: Laws often exist, but go unenforced or unchallenged. Creating Spaces works with legal professionals and community leaders to uphold the rights of women and girls. We educate women to better understand  - and fight for - their right to a life free of violence.
  3. Creating spaces for change: Creating Spaces facilitates knowledge-sharing between local partners and countries to generate widespread change. We help individuals and institutions connect, share, learn and adapt approaches to ending violence against women and girls.

Over 5 years, Creating Spaces will: 

  • Change how communities think about violence and the acceptance of violence.
  • Provide support to women and girls who have experienced violence.
  • Strengthen women & girls' rights, leadership, and engagement.
  • Help institutions and networks get the tools they need to influence change.

You can help Oxfam empower more girls like Shakuntala by donating today!

Photos by Atul Loke. Text compiled by Caroline Leal, Oxfam Canada for Creating Spaces project.

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