Taking on patriarchy, Anita Gupta started her NGO Bhojpur Mahila Kala Kendra with the singular goal of educating and financially empowering women.
Anita Gupta from Arrah in Bihar has been witnessing and experiencing the trauma that comes with living in a patriarchal society from an early age.
After her father passed away, she and her mother moved in with her maternal grandfather. She says his three sons had passed away in their teens, and to continue his lineage, he had purchased a young girl from her parents.
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She would bear his children and look after the house, cook, clean, and be assigned to all such chores. Even a small mistake would earn her a ruthless beating from the patriarch. “If she was educated, she could be self-sufficient and she wouldn’t have had to go through all this,” says Anita in a phone interview with The Better India.
At the age of eight itself, Anita decided that she would study, understanding the incredible power of education, and the importance of being independent.
Her family wasn’t supportive of this idea. After her schooling was complete, they placed several restrictions on her, telling her she couldn’t step out of the house and that she would be beaten if she tried to study further. “‘If you hit, even I will hit’ — that was my thought. Why should they hit me? I’m not doing anything wrong.”
With unshakeable resolve, she set forth to teach herself stitching and tailoring, and used her earnings to sponsor her education.
Relishing the independence that earning for herself brought her, Anita decided to spread the word around her neighbourhood — she would teach sewing and embroidery to any woman that was interested.
Today, with her NGO Bhojpur Mahila Kala Kendra (BMKK), she has empowered one lakh women by offering them free of cost training to make handicrafts, of which 10,000 are now financially independent.
Building something life-changing
In 1993, with two students under her wing, she put up a board advertising the BMKK, to encourage more women to learn these skills for free and become financially independent.
Her biggest challenge was the ongoing family opposition. “They used to trouble me a lot. Sometimes, I was locked in the house. Other times, they’d remove the banner. Or they would send away the women that came to meet me. One time, my cousin even burned down the BMKK board I had put up. But I continued working.”
The other challenge was convincing women to participate, since they also faced similar opposition. “Their families would discourage them, asking, ‘What odd things will you go out and learn?’ and ‘Why do you need to do all this?’ They also raised eyebrows since the woman would be walking alone to reach my house.”
Since it wasn’t the norm for women to go out and study, it was a constant battle for Anita to find and educate them. She would go from house to house and talk about the importance of sending the women of their house to learn such skills.
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More and more women started joining her, and in 2000, Anita registered BMKK as a non-governmental organisation. During this time, she’s provided free training to over one lakh women in tailoring, embroidery, jewellery making, and creating handicrafts like hand puppets, soft toys, dolls, and more. These are then sold at local stores and markets, and the women also partake in exhibitions throughout the country. Today, 10,000 of these women are financially independent.
Around 6,000 of these women have also acquired Artisan Identity Cards from the Handicrafts Department and can now sell their products at all handicraft fairs and government events free of charge. It’s also easier for women with these cards to take loans to start her own business.
“I’ve learnt a lot, become completely independent,” says Rita Devi, who’s been associated with BMKK since 2007. “I know saree weaving and can make artificial jewellery. I also organise training for these crafts.”
Living with her parents and taking care of her two children after her alcoholic husband passed away, Rita had no source of income and her parents couldn’t afford much more than feeding all the mouths.
“Nowadays, there’s no hope of a job for those who are uneducated. But Anita ji would sit with me every night and teach me all the crafts.” With the training she received from BMKK, her skills slowly upgraded. Today, she earns Rs 30,000 per month, and sponsors her children’s education.
“Every woman should study and be self-sufficient. This way, she can rely on herself to feed herself, educate her children, and look after other expenses,” says Anita. Giving women the skills and support to be financially independent is her lifelong goal.
For her efforts, Anita was awarded the Nari Shakti Puruskar by President Ram Nath Kovind in 2020.
It’s her continuous efforts that have brought her this far. This, she believes, is also the answer to challenging a patriarchal society. “I want to do it and I will. That should be the attitude. I know there are a lot of hurdles for women to come out and work but they need to push through.”
Learn more about her work on the BMKK website.
Edited by Divya Sethu