Women: despair and hope
WITH the exception of two families, all the women who live in Ghasipada in Bangamunda, Bolangir, earn their livelihood by cleaning night soil. They work from about 5 a.m. until about 2 p.m. cleaning the kaccha latrines of the relatively better off in the neighbourhood. They carry the night soil in baskets as head loads for disposal in nearby fields. The men work whenever they can, removing carcasses and sweeping the compounds of the well to do. These women are paid as little as Rs. 3 and Rs. 5 a day and make on an average about Rs. 300 a month cleaning in as many as 12 houses a day. None of the children get far in terms of schooling especially the girls who stay home to cook, clean, fetch water and mind their younger siblings. Even among Ghasis (whose occupation here makes them the equivalent of the Bhangis in the north) these people are the most discriminated against. The women clamoured around us asking us to write down their names and stories so that someone would take action. One person said that he has been working in the local school as a sweeper without a salary for 10 years.
In the same district we meet Sajodai a woman in her early forties who, although illiterate, is a trained mechanic. The Sahabagi Vikash Abhiyan has trained her to repair pumps and tube wells. She is confident and self-assured as she tells us that because of this ability, she is looked upon with respect in her village and is constantly called out to work. Her husband is also supportive, she says, and the men in her village admire her abilities. At a workshop at the organisation's headquarters we meet 20 or so women who have come to learn about cattle rearing. Sajodai is an obvious leader in this group. Her concerns are not confined to practical training but she speaks of organised resistance and protest against the Thikali dam project as her village is in the submergence region. Sajodai believes that the opportunities and the exposure she has had has given her a great deal of confidence.
Another young woman, Panchali Meher has matriculated from a local school and works at SVA. Before Panchali began to work with farm women, she spent many months in the fields learning about rice harvesting and other agricultural practices. Panchali comes from a traditional weaver's family and although her family was initially reluctant to let her work at SVA, they have now come to rely on her experience for all crucial family decisions. She has organised village women in anti-liquor campaigns, run workshops on health education at SVA and motivated local women to participate and get involved in their village and panchayat gatherings.
The Sahabagi Vikash Abhiyan focuses specifically on self-help initiatives, including Self Help Groups for village women, says Jagdish Pradhan. These groups act as catalysts for empowerment and not just as providers of economic activity. With increasing migration from the area especially of men in search of employment, women and elderly people who are often abandoned face acute economic distress. This collective emphasises the need for self- reliance and works to strengthen community infrastructure and support local people in their struggle against poverty and injustice