On a sunny afternoon, Sudha Varghese, a Padma Shri Award winner, is cheerful as she talks about the laurels that students from the school run by Nari Gunjan, her NGO, are achieving, as are the women associated with the NGO.
Sudha, who hails from Kottayam, Kerala, moved to Bihar in her late teens, and has been living and working with the downtrodden in Bihar for three decades now. Her efforts to reach out to the Musahars, a Mahadalit community, have paid off bringing a massive change in their lives. Known for their vocation of rat catching, the Musahar community lived on village fringes and faced caste and gender atrocities from upper castes.
Sudha looks back at the years when she started working in Bihar.
“I did not know about the caste system. Discrimination and untouchability were new to me till I came across the Musahars—the rat eating community.
They too deserve dignity. I decided to do something for them and opted to stay in a mud hut within the Musahar settlement and fight for their rights and work for their betterment,” says the social activist.
It was a struggle initially. “I had little knowledge of English when I came here,” she says. Eventually, Sudha learned Hindi and English and went on to pursue her graduation and further education in Law so that she was better equipped to handle legal hurdles in her course of empowering the community.
In 1987, she launched Nari Gunjan, a non-profit organisation to help Dalit women become aware of and access their rights. In 2005 she established a residential school named Prerna on the outskirts of Danapur, Patna.
The all-girls school designed to remove girls from farm labour to ensure they receive an education opened in 2006.
A second branch, called Prerna 2, opened in Gaya, after Nitish Kumar, the CM of Bihar, saw the success of the school and asked her to replicate it.
Currently, Nari Gunjan runs the Prerana schools, and the 3,000 enrolled students are first generation learners. “Some girls study up to 10+2. We also provide ANM (Auxiliary Nursing and Midwifery) courses. There is a coaching centre for students of class 10, as it is hard for them to study in their homes,” she says.
The girls are also shining in other fields. In addition to the standard curriculum, the schools also teach arts and dance and when Sudha felt that karate would give the girls more self-confidence, and hired a Karate teacher.
The results were outstanding, and the girls became so skilful that they won five gold, five silver and 14 bronze medals at a competition in Gujarat in 2011, earning a trip to Japan to participate in the International Martial Arts championship organised under the auspices of Japan Shotokan Karate-Do Federation.
She also shares a unique sports initiative she took up. “To divert the village youth away from gambling, we gifted them cricket kits taking support from a bank’s CSR fund. Today there are 16 cricket teams, and some have won matches. They are gifted boys. It was a big change,” she says.
Her NGO, Nari Gunjan is active in five districts of Bihar and works through 850 Self-Help Groups. It is assisted by Bihar’s Mahadalit Vikas Commission and has introduced several successful programmes. These include the ‘Anand Shiksha Kendras,’ which are like anganwadis, and ‘Kishori Shiksha Kendras’ which cater to dropouts from government schools and also reach out to women interested in education as part of Nari Gunjan’s Aksharanjali adult education programme.
Sudha has also introduced livelihood programmes for the women of the community. “Malnourishment has been the biggest health problem of the Musahar community. We introduced poultry and goat rearing as alternative livelihood programme. Today 750 families have kitchen gardens to grow their own vegetables and sell excess produce. Women groups are also involved in making commercial ‘chane ka sattu’ (a traditional nutritional powder made from chickpeas),” she says.
A unique livelihood programme that is making waves is the Nari Gunjan Sargam Mahila band, an all-women band comprising of women belonging to the Devadasi Dalit community.
“We wanted to break the myth that only men can form a band. Women were open to joining the band and said that they would play if they received training. They learned faster than I expected and now play like professionals. They played before the Chief Minister at a development programme and were subsequently interviewed by BBC. A groom came to us after hearing about the band. He wanted them to play for his wedding. That was their first professional performance, and now they travel across the country alone,” says Sudha with a proud smile.
Nari Gunjan also operates a unit to produce inexpensive sanitary napkins. “Women used ash and sand that was the most unhygienic practice, so we came up with the idea of making an inexpensive option,” she adds.
Loved by all as ‘Cycle Didi’ because she travelled on her preferred mode of transport—the bicycle—her efforts have won her several laurels, including the Padma Shri, which is the fourth highest civilian award in India, and others such as ‘Icon of Bihar.’ She was also awarded the ‘Vanitha Woman of the Year’ award in 2017.’ The award, instituted by the Malayala Manorama Group, recognised her tireless efforts to empower the Musahars.
Sudha Varghese continues to work with the oppressed relentlessly. Thanks to her campaigns against atrocities, sexual harassment and injustice, the Musahar women today, are aware of their rights. “Well I guess I will continue bringing about change as long as I can work,” she laughs.
(This article has been written by Syeda Farida)
You can help her cause by donating here.