Deep in the heart of Marathwada region of Maharashtra, in the Tuljapur Taluka, are a group of women commanding the winds of change against patriarchy and domestic abuse. Among them is Laxmi Waghmare, who is leading 17,000 women to a life of dignity and independence by fighting for their rights, educating them about financial saving and speaking up against child marriage.
Being born into a Dalit family of leather workers, Laxmi was married at the age of eight to her maternal uncle, who was 13 years older than her. “I was born into a family that already had girl children. So, my mother thought it was wise to marry me off to my maternal uncle, who she thought would take care of me when I was just eight years old,” begins Laxmi, adding that at the time she didn’t know what she was getting into.
“When I was in the ninth standard and got my period, my education was stopped, and I was made to go live with my husband’s family. But I wanted to make something of myself, so I went on strike. I gave up food and water and threatened to commit suicide if my in-laws didn’t send me back to school. After a year’s gap, I was able to return to complete my 10th standard and ended up completing my HSC,” says the 38-year-old.
The mother of three had the voice of dissent instilled in her from a very young age. And even though the hardships that life brought her way were enough to bring her down, she tells The Better India how it never crushed her fighting spirit.
Life after marriage
After getting pregnant with a girl, her studies were brought to an abrupt halt, but, years later, an opportunity soon arose where she could start working again. “In the year 2000, Bharat Vaidya (Halo Medical Foundation – HMF) was being launched in the village, and the Gram Panchayat enquired about a volunteer who would carry out surveys of the sick patients of the village to report back to the medical community. The Panchayat knew that I had studied till the 12th standard and I got a chance to work as a village health worker to conduct basics of nursing and infant healthcare and catering to pregnant ladies,” she says.
With a monthly salary of Rs 300, and armed with pregnancy tests and HIV tests, she worked as a ‘mini doctor’, expanding her scope of work to the neighbouring villages as well. “At first, people didn’t cooperate, and they made fun of me saying — ‘You’re not educated, how will you help doctors’. But, observing my work, all their doubts melted away,” Laxmi says.
After conducting surveys, Laxmi quickly realised the intersectionalities between women’s health, food security, access to finance, and their agency. In the same year, she started a self-help group of 10-12 women. “Since most of these women were either single, widowed, coming out of a broken marriage, or left without any property to their name, they wouldn’t be eligible for bank loans as they have no collateral. We decided to collect a small sum, as small as Rs 100, from each woman every month and set it aside. This was done to start a revolving loan system among the women, to be accessed for their personal use like children’s education, etc.” says a zealous Laxmi.
Empowering the masses
A decade later, in 2010, HMF recognised Laxmi’s capabilities and nominated her for a fellowship program, run by CORO India (Committee of Resource Organisation for Literacy), a platform for grassroots women leaders. Here, she initiated and scaled the ‘Ekal Mahila Sangathan’ (EMS) or ‘Single Women’s Organisation’, which served as a leadership springboard for rural single women.
To manage the operations of the Mahila Mandals, Laxmi draws a salary of Rs 5,000. Today, over two decades later, Laxmi has trained 190 women leaders like herself from 300 villages across four districts. “Laxmi is leading a movement of change for over 17,000 single women, lifting them out of poverty and violence,” says Seema Arora, CEO and Deputy Director-General, Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) Foundation.
The CII Foundation—set up in 2011 to undertake a wide range of social development and charitable initiatives across India—has nominated Laxmi for an award.
“The CIIF Woman Exemplar Program seeks to identify, recognise and build the capacity of women at the grassroots who have, against all odds, excelled and contributed significantly to the development process in India. Laxmi is a finalist in the Health category for the 2020 cohort of the program,” says Seema, adding, “Her selection as a finalist represents an inspiring personal journey, her continuous desire to learn and grow and the relevance of her work with the most vulnerable populations.”
Speaking about working with single women, Laxmi says, “I’ve gone through a lot in my life. People ask me if my kids are actually my siblings because I had them at such a young age. When I started working with the women from the villages, I realised I could introspect about my own life. The hardships I have faced in my marriage is possibly something few women can relate to.”
‘These girls want to study’
Laxmi recalls her past abuse, saying, “Because I would go out for work and return home late the villagers would often point fingers at my character and pass rumours. One time, I was made to stand out in the rain one night just because I came home late.”
Laxmi tells me that she understands that her husband comes from a different school of thought, but it is still not an excuse for abusive behaviour. “I am a 12th standard pass. My husband isn’t educated. We would often have differences in opinions. He grazes cattle and comes home drunk. There were a lot of times before when he would hit and abuse me. One day I had enough and stood up to him. From then on, things have been better at home. I still live with my husband for my mother’s sake who often tells me to forget the past,” she says, adding, “Though, it is because of my own experience that I was able to stop four child marriages in 2006-07. I urged their parents to see that these girls wanted to study and that this is not the right age for them to get married.”
Kaushalya Dadasaheb Kalsule, a single mother of two who was also selected by CORO India in 2016 for a fellowship training programme, speaks very highly of her mentor — Laxmi. The widow shares how attending the self-help groups (SHG) helped her gain the confidence to step out of her house.
“I used to get scared and cry to even sit with the women of the SHGs. After mingling with them, I understood that we had shared experiences. Having wed as a child and getting pregnant shortly after, my education was stopped. But I listened to Laxmi take the meetings, which inspired me to want to be like her. I enrolled in Class 10 and studied till Class 12. For my board examinations, one of the subjects was English – but that didn’t deter me,” says Kaushalya.
In the Maratha community, Kaushalya says, it is frowned upon for widows to wear nice clothes or apply sindoor. Having helped three widows remarry, Kaushalya, who is just one of the many inspired by Laxmi, says, “I am inspired by these women and never feel alone when I am with them. Through Laxmi, I have learnt that I, too, can live a life of dignity and on my own terms.”
She goes on to share how she has helped in solving women’s problems of domestic violence, property rights, pension-related, etc. issues in her own village. “Earlier, I didn’t have an identity or any ambition. But throughout this process of fellowship training and being with my sahelis, I had hope. And now, my respect among the villagers has increased,” she says.
All in a day’s work
Laxmi wakes up early every morning to complete her house chores. “My kids—Pooja, my eldest, who is completing her TYBSc, Abhishek, who is doing his SYBSc and Shubham, who is doing his HSC—help me with my housework. My boys sweep and swab the house before I leave for my daily surveys of the villagers by 9 am. There are at least 3,000 villagers to check upon. I also make a note of who shows symptoms of the coronavirus. On returning by 12 pm, I eat lunch and prepare documents for official purposes. By the evenings I catch up with my sahelis on how their lives are going and what problems they’re facing over a cup of tea,” says Laxmi.
When asked if she has any message to share for women everywhere, Laxmi says, “I still don’t have any property to my name. But through my earnings from CORO and working as a village health worker, I can live a better life and provide for my children.” And without missing a beat, she urges women to stand up for themselves, saying, “Everyone should be able to stand on their own feet.”