Fighting to End Gender Discrimination: Johani Kisku

Fighting to End Gender Discrimination: Johani Kisku

She has built a community that helps poor girls who can’t afford to study or support themselves. She sees in them her own image, her own struggles, and her own childhood. What keeps her going is her empathy for others. And she is clear about one thing, “If a girl has to earn respect and pride, education is the only way.”  

Meet Johani Kisku. Born to a tribal family in Jamui district of Bihar.

Johani Kisku was the first girl from her village to move to a city. This piqued people’s interest who threw all sorts of questions and insinuations at her parents. “Where did she live?” “What was she doing?” and even, “If she is in city, there is only one job that she is doing—prostitution”. Had Johani’s parents listened to these random comments and vile suggestions of people, things would have been different for this social activist today.

Johani’s parents chose to ignore the villagers and support their daughter. She was given the freedom to choose and take chances. She was treated like the ‘son’ of the house. This backing changed her life. Though she has had to live through difficulties and struggles, 36-year-old Johani now successfully runs an organisation named MADAD that helps, educates, and employs girls who have been deprived of basic rights. “Today, almost all the girls who had decided to move out of their villages to create their own distinct identities, are taking up jobs in social work, hospitals, and teaching sector,” Johani says proudly.

Johani was born in a scheduled tribe Christian home in a naxal-dominated hilly village in Bihar’s Jamui district. She was one of nine children. Her parents, farmers, could only manage to send Johani till 7th class; they couldn’t afford to send her to an expensive private residential school just outside their village. But a determined, strong-willed Johani continued her studies by enrolling in a government school 20 kms away from her home. Her plan was to complete her 10th. Her plans hit a roadblock yet again; her parents couldn’t afford to continue her studies as they had younger children to send to school. Johani, the third child, did not want to jeopardise her siblings chances, so she dropped out. But she wasn’t going to give up on her own dreams either.

So in 2001, at the age of 16, she left her village and reached Patna. Her plan was to work her way through school. She took up work as domestic help; her plan was to study in the first half and work in the second half. This was difficult as she was always expected to be at her employer’s beck and call leaving her with no time for studies. She then decided to save up money and then resume her studies; that too seemed difficult. Ultimately, she quit her job after two years.

Just when she felt the world closing in, she found a ray of hope. This was a organisation run by nuns, that helped young girls like Johani find work and complete their studies. Through this organisation she found employment with a much kinder, accommodating family. She was their baby-sitter which gave her enough time to complete her 11th and 12th through private college.

Meanwhile, she also continued working with the nun's for the upliftment of girls and women from marginalised communities. The discrimination and difficulties that came with economic and social backwardness was her lived experience and this motivated her to jump into social work with the sole aim to educate and help girls, like her, arriving from villages. They worked to create awareness among domestic workers and this gave an opportunity to Johani to get involved in counselling and training these girls, who came from very distant places, to become self-sufficient. She became a very active member of the organisation and gained recognition for her work. But in all those years she always kept in touch with her family and even provided monetary support for the education and the wedding of her siblings.

But not all was fine at the organisation where she worked and she felt that they, perhaps, didn’t have the will to resolve many issues and implemented regulations quite rigidly on its volunteers. She saw the very aim of ‘freedom for girls’ getting compromised, and felt the urge to find an alternative.

A trip to Thailand and Bangladesh, to study the domestic help scenario there helped build her perspective on the issue and she founded MADAD in 2009 in Patna. She was now free to do her thing her way — whether it was resolving issues or voicing her opinion or mobilising, educating, supporting, training and employing the girls. She helped the girls find self-respect and their own identity. Courtesy the Malala Fund, she took her projects to Buxar, and spread awareness among the deprived Dalit and tribal girls and their parents.

She might have had her differences with the nuns but she holds immense gratitude and respect for them. “I am thankful to them for inspiring and training me. Without their help, I would have been lost,” she says.

Over the years, Johani has attained a very respectable position within the society for her social work. The way she functions, there is no discrimination against anyone, it doesn’t matter where the girl has come from. If she finds a girl living in poverty or a girl child abandoned, she will take her under her wings. She continues to addresses issues of domestic helps. 

The villagers who once taunted her for going to the city, accepted her with open arms when she visited their homes. Everyone was proud of Johani’s accomplishments; her mother was too but she also worried about her daughter crossing ‘marriageable age’ while her other younger daughters were getting married. Johani understood her mother’s concerns but she was not prepared to marry. As a person, who is greatly inspired by the life and work of nuns, she argues, “If I get married, I don’t think I will be able to continue my work. I simply have no time to get married and what will happen to those girls who have a smile on their face today, because of me and my organisation?”

In what she calls a ‘society’ as many as 75 girls from various remote, far off villages live with her; they study and work, are independent and free from restrictions in her place. The girls are free to marry whoever they want and whenever they want but she has a condition — they have to be economically independent.

We at Oxfam India are trying to reach thousands in marginalised communities to ensure that they have access to the basic and essential services of life — health, education, and a free and just society. And we at Oxfam India hope to create many more Johani’s who can stand and fight for their rights and the rights of many other and create a discrimination-free society.

Oxfam India is a movement to end discrimination. You can join this movement too. 

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