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Bengal Women Show The Way Through Strength

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Amidst the changing Kolkata skyline one building has remained reassuringly same. Shuruchi, the all-Bengali cuisine restaurant, began a trend of sorts by being the first to have an all-women staff. Over the years, several thousands have made their way to this eatery to tuck into authentic local food at rock-bottom prices. But hidden behind this modest building is a huge welfare enterprise - the All Bengal Women's Union (ABWU) founded by some far-sighted women way back in 1932.

At the time it was funded, Calcutta (Kolkata) and Bombay (Mumbai) had a large population of migrant labour living without their families. Also, the two World Wars saw an increase in the number of sailors and soldiers visiting Calcutta. Both these factors led to a rise in prostitution. So a group of women got together under the guidance of Maharani Suniti Devi of Cooch Behar and formed the ABWU, to specifically address the issue of trafficking and homelessness of destitute women. The ABWU was registered under the presidency of Dowager Maharani Suniti Devi of Cooch Behar, with Mrs. S.K. Sinha and Mrs. T.R. Neely as the Secretary and Joint Secretary, respectively.

From supporting pro-women legislation to providing food, education, shelter and livelihood to women in prostitution, ABWU's mandate was clearly defined.

When the Bengal Suppression of Immoral Traffic Bill was placed before the Bengal Legislative Assembly in 1932 and a support petition was drafted, the members of ABWU took an active part in the signature campaign. In 1932, the Calcutta Suppression of Immoral Traffic Act and the Children Act was introduced to enable the police to rescue women and children from brothels. On April 1, 1933, the Bill was passed. Today, that law may appear anachronistic, but at that point it was seen as an important initiative to reach out to trafficked women. The campaign was one of the first political activities that the women of Bengal participated in through the ABWU.

After the passage of the Bill the ABWU started a home for rescued girls called the All Bengal Women's Industrial Institute at Dumdum. A founder member of the ABWU - Romola Sinha - later became the first Chairperson of Central Social Welfare Board in West Bengal.

Through the decades, the home has given shelter to innumerable girls and destitute women, especially during the Second World War, the great Bengal famine of 1943, and later through the terrible violence that marked India's partition, when Bengal in the East of India was partitioned to form East Pakistan (which later became Bangladesh) and the state of West Bengal that remained within the Indian Union.

In fact, Partition posed numerous challenges for the ABWU. A large number of women victims of atrocities came to the city seeking shelter. Many were pregnant and others had lost their families. The ABWU opened its doors to them but clearly there was urgent need for more space. It was then that the sprawling complex on Elliot Road, where the ABWU is now housed, was given to the organisation by the government. Almost 200 refugee women got shelter here and a maternity ward was also started for unmarried refugee mothers from East Pakistan (at the request of the government). Many of these girls were given vocational training and jobs; some were even married with ABWU's help. Even today, long after the refugee problem had receded, the organisation continues to be a beacon of hope for poor, vulnerable and destitute women.

Over the years, the ABWU continued to grow in scope and size. The government gave it more land and monetary grants and today the ABWU has taken on several related programmes in fulfillment of the mission it had embarked upon over seventy years ago. Besides providing shelter, it imparts educational and vocational training to single girls and women who have no one to turn to. It also runs an After Care Home for 25 girls, some of whom are government sponsored; a Children's Welfare Home for 160 girls; and an Old Age Women's Home for those who have no families or had been rejected by them.

Children are also equally cared for at the ABWU. Shyamali (name changed) is a happy 12-year-old, who is often given extra coaching under the loving but firm eye of Kasturi Mukherjee, the Vice President of the ABWU. Looking at Shyamli, who is particularly good at dancing, it is hard to imagine that the child had faced violence early in life. Poverty had forced her to work as a domestic help with a family in Orissa when she was nine. Her employers tortured her so badly that the neighbours complained to the police and Shyamli was rescued. She is among the 300 inmates of ABWU's primary school, where the children are provided with quality education and mid-day meals. Meritorious students are helped to complete their education through a special aid fund. Many students at the school, which opened in 1950, are runaways or destitutes rescued by the authorities and sent to ABWU's home; some of these children even come from neighbouring slums.

In fact, so impressive has the organisation's work been that in 2004 the government approached it for its Swadhar Scheme Home for survivors of trafficking and at present the Home provides shelter and vocational training to 30 such survivors. These inmates are given training in vocational skills like cooking, block printing, cutting, sewing and tailoring.

Shuruchi, however, is undoubtedly ABWU's most successful venture. Shuruchi began in 1952 and initially it only offered a take-home food service. As the ABWU's work expanded, so did Shuruchi. In 1972 it became a two-room restaurant where 105 people could be seated at a time. Of its current staff of 28 women, 14 are inmates of ABWU's homes. Says Kalpana Dey, a staff member, "We are one big family and this means a lot to all of us personally."

Apart from Suruchi, the ABWU also has a production unit where saris are woven and block printed and other items like children's clothing, and handcrafted items like beds and table linen are produced. The shop has two in-house sales a year - one during spring and the other during the famed Bengali 'Durga Puja' festival. Many of these products are also sold to outlets like Good Companions, an upscale handicraft shop on Kolkata's Russell Street.

For Anwara Khatun (name changed) making block prints on the sari gives her a sense of achievement and purpose in life. She is one of the many destitute women referred to the ABWU by the local police who have been rehabilitated.

What is the kind of revenue generated through all this economic activity? What are the salaries that the ABWU women draw? Says Dey, ABWU's industrial secretary, "We are an organisation where women are for women, we are not a profit making organisation. Our greatest achievements are when we see a smile on the faces of many girls and women who have made their way here for a life of dignity and meaning."

Womens Feature Service covers developmental, political, social and economic issues in India and around the globe. To get these articles for your publication, contact WFS at the www.wfsnews.org website.

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