Ombeeri Devi : A Champion of Equal Wages

Ombeeri Devi : A Champion of Equal Wages

As we sit down for a chat, Ombeeri Devi wraps up the washing at the end of the courtyard. She walks up to us and asks “would you want some tea?”. She gets it anyway and before she can settle down for the interview goes in one of the rooms, fetches a shawl, a silver coin, and a framed photo. “I was one of the eight women felicitated by your office for my work on women empowerment,” she says. There is a sense of unmissable pride (and a tinge of regret as one of her awards was broken)!

We are in Abdalpur village in Purkazi block in Muzaffarnagar district of Uttar Pradesh. Ombeeri, somewhere between 50 and 55 years old as she insists, is a daily wager working in sugarcane farmers fields but she is a leader the whole village looks up to. She first started with protests against the men who use to drink alcohol and create nuisance in front of her house. “There was a theka right in front of my house. It had to go. A lot of other women also joined us.”

Her neighbours and friends from the village say, “She is a courageous lady, a role model for others to stand up for their rights & voice their opinions against any sort of harassment or eve-teasing.”

Just to rewind a bit, Ombeeri wasn’t always the fiery one. She was married at 17, expected to do all the household chores, had an alcoholic and abusive husband, and in-laws who always taunted her for not bearing a child (read son). Finally she did have her first child. A son was born. “The taunts from the in-laws stopped. But to this day I shudder to think what would have happened if my first born was a girl.”

She went on to have two more children—a son and a daughter. The husband, a home guard, continued with his alcoholism and abuses. One day when she had had enough, she threatened the husband with police action if he hit her. He was too drunk and he passed out. The next morning, she sat him down and asked him nicely, to give up alcohol or she would take him to the police. The abuses stopped.

But the alcoholics outside continued to be a nuisance, which is when she took matters in her hand and approached the police. The police didn’t take any action. Frustrated, she approached Rehana Adib of Astitva, a Muzaffarnagar-based NGO. Rehana and Ombeeri went back to the police, filed an FIR and they had to eventually take action.

The thekas went but alcohol induced violence continued. By now Ombeeri was actively attending all workshops at Astitva and came up with the idea of forming a collective of women and signing a pact—no liquor shops in the village and if anyone beat up his wife or anyone at home after drinking the women collective would beat him up too! The men came to know of it. They didn’t take it very seriously until there were a few instances when the women did beat up alcoholic abusive husbands. “Till date there are many in the village who dislike me for this,” she laughs.

She has been at the fore of the fight for equal wages as well. A few years ago when women earned Rs 120 for 8 hours of work while the men got somewhere between Rs 220 to Rs 250, she mobilised both men and women to demand equal wages. “The women collective was strong, we told the men if they went to work before our wages were increased we would break their knee.” When both protested, the farmers agreed to increase their wages to Rs 200, citing some difference in work between both men and women. This was however, the first win.

Again around 2018-19, women and men farm workers ended up with a Rs 100 wage gap. Women were at Rs 200 and men at Rs 300. Once again she protested and demanded equal wages. Many negotiations later they managed to up their wages to Rs 250. It is not yet equal, but the gap is decreasing and that is victory. And there is the confidence that with Ombeeri at the helm of the women collectives, will eventually be able to bridge this gap.

What she has done with her children is exemplary too. Her children were sent to school but she took extra interest in her daughter Ankita’s education. A good student, Ombeeri took the decision to send her to a hostel so that she can continue with her studies. This encouraged other parents to also send their daughters to residential schools in Muzaffarnagar. It was the strength of the backing of her mother that Ankita did not let casteist slurs thrown at her in the school affect her studies. She stood against caste discrimination; Ombeeri belongs to Chamar caste, a Scheduled Caste (Dalit). 

Ombeeri was part of Oxfam’s Creating Spaces project and she roped in her daughter Ankita as well. Ankita trained as a beautician and set up her own beauty parlour. Ombeeri proudly shows off the board just outside her house above a now-closed door—Ankita Beauty Parlour—it reads. “She is very good with bridal make-up,” beams the proud mother. Ankita married in 2020 and she set up the beauty parlour at her marital home.

Watch Ankita's story, here

During the course of her interaction with Oxfam India Ankita learnt to make detergent as well. In fact, she has taught others in the village as well and is keen to teach any one who approaches her. "Even for the beautician course, if anyone is willing to I will teach them. Girls should be economically independent," says Ankita who we met at her marital home. Ombeeri also ensured that her daughter-in-law completed her B.Ed course and apply for teaching jobs.

A strong advocate of economic independence and equal rights, Ombeeri Devi has been the true leader in the village. As women continue to pour in during the course of the interview, a sense of pride in the visitors is palpable. So is the confidence that if anything was not right, Ombeeri would set it right.

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