Alcoholism, gambling and domestic abuse were once rampant in villages like Khushiyari, Deura, Bhadrasi, Ramsipur and Jagardevpur in Uttar Pradesh, but today these places are known for empowering the women who live there. Twenty-five women dressed in green sarees go on rounds of these villages every day and ensure there is not just peace, but discipline too. Not very long ago, the same women were helpless victims of domestic abuse.
One night in 2015, Divyanshu Upadhyay, a political science student from Kashi Vidyapeeth, Banaras, was returning from a birthday party with his friends. The boys spent their spare time hanging out in the Assi Ghat in Banaras, and what they saw here on that night changed their lives.
“We saw a lady and her two children looking for some food in the filthy and smelly garbage. Few dogs were also doing the same beside them. We managed to get some bread and offered it to the kids. But we couldn’t forget that scene for the next few days,” says Divyanshu.
The boys then decided to round their friends from Kashi Vidyapeeth, Banaras Hindu University and Delhi University and do something about this situation. Ravi Mishra, a senior student and IAS aspirant, led the initiative of going to the slums between Durga Kund and Ravidas Park.
The slum had around 500 people. The old and young survived by begging, pulling rickshaws or selling things like balloons etc. at the signals. None of them went to school as they weren’t aware of the free education as well as meals at the government schools.
Divyanshu, Ravi and his friends made it their mission to see that these kids get an education, and started a drive to send the children to school.They also decided to clean their city, starting with the Durga Kund area in the centre of Banaras. Soon,15 students would clean the area every Sunday.
Formation of the NGO
As people came to know about their work, the team’s spirit was boosted, and they registered themselves as an NGO, Hope Welfare Trust in March 2015.
By this time the team had 30-35 students from Kashi Vidyapeeth, BHU and DU. They continued to visit the slums and started to build a bond with the people there. While talking to many of them, the team realised that the slums and its problems are the results of migration from the nearby villages to the cities.
“We realised that we need to reach to the root cause of the problem, which was migration from villages. For this it was important to develop the villages and not the slums,” says Divyanshu.
A survey was conducted in the villages that surrounded Banaras by the NGO, with the help of MSW students. The survey highlighted that the migration rate to Banaras was more from the villages that lacked electricity, roads and educational institutions.
On August 9, 2015, the team visited Khushiyari village near Banaras and found out that other than lack of electricity or roads, the biggest problem in the village was alcoholism, gambling and as a result of the former two, every woman in the village was a victim of domestic abuse.
“When we first stepped into the village and asked a woman standing at her doorstep a question, she did not even respond, instead, she went in and called her husband to speak to us. It was really awkward for students like us who had seen girls excelling in all fields in the cities. Small children would sit in group of 4-5 and gamble. Men were seen drunken on the roads and would hit their wives every night. Women were absolutely helpless in the village,” says Divyanshu, now Secretary of Hope Welfare Trust.
The birth of Green Group
As these were just a group of students, who were managing everything from their pocket money without any financial, political or media backing, they wanted to take it one step at a time. The team started talking to these women in the absence of their husbands and explained them the importance of education. The team would teach and discuss with these women under a tree in the village.
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“By the time we started working in Khushiyari, more students had joined our NGO. We divided our teams and every team would visit the village to conduct classes whenever they had free time on weekdays and on Sundays,” says Divyanshu.
The classes started with just few women, and soon, each woman of the village knew how to write her name.
There were clear instructions from the HWT team that none of the women would use their thumb impression for any legal documents henceforth. This was like a sense of achievement for these women who had never been out of their houses and they started feeling empowered. The classes also included the heroic stories of Rani Laxmibai and Savitribai Phule, which made the women realise their power.
They were also taught how to lodge a complaint in case of domestic abuse. Within few months the students helped each woman open their own bank account. The women were also given self-defence training.
Now, it was time to empower them financially. The team approached a Woman’s group in Banaras, who travelled to the village and taught them skills like stitching, beauty salon work and knitting.
The team then selected 25 women in the village who could go out spread the word, and help empower others. The students bought them green sarees and jute bags and formed a ‘Green Group’ of 25 empowered women.
The Green group was supposed to make a round of the village every day and tell people about the harms of drinking, gambling and abusing. They were also instructed to complain to the police if things went out of hand. The women would try and stop any domestic violence they witnessed and then lodge a complaint against the culprit.
The students then invited the Superintendent of Police of the area to felicitate these women. At the event, the SP provided these women with an I-card and announced that they will be considered Police-Mitra (Police- friends) from now on and any complaint from them would result in immediate action from the police.
Due to the effort of the team and Green group the village now also has electricity and toilets at each household. The women also emphasize on stopping the use of plastic and using jute bags. They also make sure that the village is cleaned every day and plantation is done at open spaces.
More than 300 students changing one village at a time
On the other hand, Hope Welfare Trust is a group of more than 300 students now. The team uses social media to reach out to the officers and authorities to make any work done at a particular village.The team has also made whatssapp group of Gram Pradhans wherein they get motivated and inspired by each other to develop their village.
After Khushiyari, the team has worked in a similar way in five more villages in the past 2 years. The team takes a monthly report from all the green groups in these villages and works and guides these groups accordingly.
Recently during the UP elections, the Green Group women urged other women to cast their vote.
Hope Welfare Trust is now making an appeal to the government to declare one day in the year as Grameen Diwas (Village Day) to get the focus of the entire country, media, tourists and the government itself on villages on this day.
“Like we celebrate NRI day or Women’s day and those days really help to focus on those issues, if we celebrate Grameen Diwas then we can definitely get the entire country’s attention on the problems faced by these villages. NRI’s belonging to these villages would come back on this day and help it improve. Media might focus on the village tourism and various problems too. And the Panchayat will be responsible to show what they have done on this day every year,” says Divyanshu.
The students of Hope believe that if the youth of our country work in the right direction and women are empowered, then we can soon change the sad plight of many villages in India.