This article has been sponsored by the Jamnalal Bajaj Foundation
Jaya Arunachalam never believed social shackles were strong enough to hold her. In her personal as well as public life, she dedicated herself to liberate people from divisional fences, breaking gender, caste, colour or religion-based chains.
She was one of India’s most prominent social activists who impacted lakhs of lives, especially of women in the southern states. A major loss for India, she recently, on June 29 (Saturday) passed away at the age of 84.
Life of a fighter
Born in a family of Gandhians, Jaya found her calling much early in life and decided to work towards empowering women. As a result, in 1978, along with several like-minded women, she established the Working Women’s Forum (India), a social organisation that develops human resource potential of poor women workers in the informal sector.
In the past 41 years, the Forum, which started with helping just 800, has touched the lives of over 0.6 million women in thousands of villages and slums of south India, by holistically combining economic development with health, nutrition, and general awareness. As a result, the WWF has been successful at empowering women in almost 270 occupational groups, that include weavers, hawkers, fisherwomen, vendors, lacemakers and many more.
“I felt that it should be a very different type of work. More of development work, rather than a work of charity,” she said.
But this calling was the result of a disaster.
In 1978, Jaya was caught amidst the tumultuous floods of Chennai that wreaked havoc all around the city and beyond. At the time, she was involved in relief efforts for slum dwellers, and the experience made her realise a hard reality—people living in such conditions receive help only when a disaster hits them. The lack of facilities and total negligence showered on them was jarring enough to push her to action. “This made me think seriously that more than the flood, poverty is the greater disaster,” said Jaya.
The Forum’s success comes from its model that involves these women into its institutional framework, that spreads and reaches out to more such women through its current beneficiaries.
Supporting these women to fight for their rights for land, housing, and reproduction, the organisation has pushed them to reclaim their agency. One such way is by enabling them to gain financial independence, through the Indian Cooperative Network for Women (ICNW), a prominent wing of WWF. From providing low-interest loans for encouraging entrepreneurship to installing a micro-credit system, this network focuses on enhancing their social self-sufficiency through economic freedom.
Till date, ICNW’s credit programme has been able to reach 0.5 million such entrepreneurs affecting almost Rs 1,745.25 million, which in turn, has accomplished about 98 per cent recovery in both urban slums and rural areas.
Another cell working to help women gain control of their lives and their bodies is WWF’s Reproductive Health Care Programme. Emphasising on their reproductive rights with regard to their freedom to decide the number of children they want to bear or even their contraceptive choices, the wing has been able to help almost 1.5 million families in India.
On the economic front as well, WWF has been pioneering to get women what they deserve. Through unionisation, it has been able to break the chains of middle-men and societal bias, increasing their visibility in their respective trades by providing fair wages.
Owing to her extensive work over the last four decades, she has received several prominent accolades. Two of those are a Padma Shri in 1987, and the Jamnalal Bajaj Award for Development and Welfare of Women and Children in 2009.
Currently working to establish an international grassroots network for women called Grassroots Organizations Operating Together in Sisterhood (GROOTS), Jaya has emerged as one of the most formidable personalities in Indian feminist discourse.
Find more details about the Jamnalal Bajaj Awards here.
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)