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India's Unsung Women Trailblazers

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As an acid attack survivor, she rises from the ashes and fights violence, even figuring in the popular television show, 'Kaun Banega Crorepati'; as a savvy farmer she not only manages to double her own family income but ensures that no one in her village will ever go hungry; she is the sporting icon, be it the swimming champion who makes her country proud or the master goalie who shows how tribal girls rule on the football field; she is the passionate environmental crusader, whether she saves forests by planting a million trees or invents a bio fuel stove that is a boon for all rural women; she is the committed elected representative who prioritises education in a region where meeting a literate woman is as rare as sighting water in the desert; and finally she is the teen who wears a smile as she bears burdens far beyond her years. It was a year of well-known heroines like sporting icons Mary Kom and Saina Nehwal, but 2012 also saw eight, relatively unknown women trailblazers, who overcame many odds and inspired others to follow in their footsteps.

SONALI MUKHERJEE RISES FROM THE ASHES, FIGHTS VIOLENCE
I had heard about Sonali's case. She had been subjected to an acid attack nine years ago when she was 17, but I had not expected this bright young woman who stood before me. She started with an irony: It was her call for euthanasia that gave her a new lease of life. "Until July this year I was a victim. Now I am a survivor. My friends and family had abandoned me when I needed them most. But the media and people I didn't even know came forward to help me live," she said.

Rewinding to the dreadful night on April 22, 2003, she revealed that the family was sleeping on the open terrace of their home in Dhanbad, Jharkhand when "around 2.30 am I woke up with a sharp, burning sensation". She felt her face, neck, right ear, the right part of her chest, and lower torso melt away. "Three men, who had been harassing me for weeks, had jumped over from the neighbour's roof and doused me with acid. I suffered 70 per cent burns," she recalled. The words she used were searing. "That night I felt I was engulfed in the arms of death and life stood still; in that one moment I was stuck between life and death."

Having experienced the horrific consequences of violence against women, Sonali has obviously thought deeply on the subject, "In India, women are advised to avoid sexual predators. But, think about it, society is directly responsible for the sexual harassment women face."

(Text by Kamayani Bali Mahabal)

RALILA MUDULI: ODISHA'S AGRI-TECH SAVVY FARMER
The story of Ralila Muduli, a tribal woman farmer from Boliguda village of Boipariguda block in Koraput, Odisha, is truly amazing. After struggling to feed her family of six, she was introduced to a nature-friendly farming system that not only changed her status but that of her tribal community. Their farming technology came to be recognised as a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System (GIAHS) and Ralila was personally felicitated by the prime minister for her work.

Earlier, rice cultivation in her village had demanded large amounts of chemical fertilisers. Now, thanks to her advocacy, farmers have switched to cow dung and vermicompost for manure. Ralila explains the method, "To prevent crops from getting infected, we prepare insecticides in the traditional manner by using neem leaves and other plants found in the forest. Through this method of farming we have been able to increase our annual yields by almost three times - and at much less cost." Ralila says that she now has an annual income of Rs 50,000 and can feed her family comfortably, with the children being able to attend school.

Indian women farmers like Ralila are emerging as the backbone of the rural economy. Recent data from the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) data revealed that 18 per cent of farming families are headed by women. Commented Dr M.S. Swaminathan, the father of India's green revolution, and founder of the research centre in Koraput's Jeypore, "Women farmers will determine India's agrarian and rural economy in the years to come."

(Text by Sarada Lahangir)

YOUNG BHAKTI CONQUERS THE SEVEN SEAS
Bhakti Sharma, 22, is quite the water baby. She is the youngest in the world to have crossed seven seas, including four oceans; is only the third person in the world to have swum across the Arctic Ocean, and is now eyeing the Antarctic Ocean to become the youngest to swim in all five oceans. This year, the Udaipur girl also became the recipient of the Tenzing Norgay National Adventure Award 2012 for water adventure, presented by the President of India.

All these glories have demanded years of hard work and sacrifice from the youngster. "At a time when most people used to be tucked away in blankets and quilts on cold winter nights, I would be swimming," recalls the gritty swimmer.

She was in Class 12 when she completed what she calls "the Mt Everest of long distance swimming" -
crossing the English Channel in July 2006. In the years that followed Sharma achieved many milestones. There was the Lake Zurich Marathon Swim in 2007, she crossed the Gulf of Mexico - the only Indian to do so - that year and then it was the Pacific Ocean, the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea.

Incredible as it may sound, Sharma keeps up her spirits on the high seas by singing. "When I am doing long distance swims, I sing songs in my head and often come up with a short poem. I also think of all the things I would eat after finishing the swim. When I get stuck in tides, I recite the Hanuman Chalisa," says the youngster, who also has black belt in karate.

(Text by Rakesh Kumar)

JHARKHAND'S 'LADY TARZAN' RESCUES BOTH TIGERS AND TREES
Chami Devi Murmu, 42, is fondly called the 'Lady Tarzan of Jharkhand', not because she has befriended tigers or can talk to monkeys in the Muturkham Chaura and Kadel Pahar jungles of Saraikela-Kharsawan district. She is on a mission to protect the local wildlife by saving the forests that have been fast vanishing due to the havoc caused by the timber mafia and Naxal insurgency in the area.

A native of Barisai village in Jharkhand state, it has taken Chami nearly 24 years to mobilise women from over 40 villages to plant Sal, Eucalyptus and Acacia trees, among others, to replenish the heavily depleted green cover. Chami's eco-brigade of over 3,000 Self-Help Group (SHG) women has planted more than a million trees and has also developed watersheds to help raise the ground water levels in the region.

"Trees are our lives. They fulfill our very real needs for firewood and food and so I thought why not I become the saviour of our lifesavers," says a confident Chami, adding, "Our network of women is so strong that we immediately come to know where a tree is being chopped. Our organisation, the Sahyogi Mahila group, a cluster of various SHGs, now plants trees and also protects them."

Says the Santhal woman, "Jharkhand means 'the land of forests' and in our local Santhal language it also means 'a piece of gold'. For me, our forests are gold and we need to preserve them."

(Text by Saadia Azim)

PRIYADARHSHINI KARVE, SCIENTIST OF HOME AND HEARTH
"It was sheer laziness that led me down the inventor's path," laughs Priyadarshini Karve, who has won the Ashden Award for Renewable Energy for her biowaste-to-charcoal technology. Karve, 41, is not some unapproachable scientist researching some hard-to-pronounce phenomenon. In fact, whether it is her work on sustainable lifestyles, bio fuels, gasifier stoves or renewable charcoal, Karve has had a finger on the pulse of rural women who are often the most neglected in the developing world.

Karve developed a deep connect with the rural lifestyle having spent her childhood in the semi-rural environs of Phaltan town, 100 kilometres outside of Pune, Maharashtra. "While I was pursuing my degree in Physics, I was required to do a project. I took up the task of creating a compact fuel with sawdust and sand for stoves used in rural areas. It was a daily dose of smoke and soot for those three months that made me realise how tough it must be to cook in such conditions for years on end," she elaborates.

Intrigued by the idea of creating an efficient stove, Karve joined Pune-based Appropriate Rural Technologies Institute (ARTI) in the mid-Nineties. "The farmers in the Phaltan area burnt off the biomass residue from cane sugar production. We developed an oven and retort type charring kiln and a briquetting process to convert this loose biomass into char briquettes. We also created a highly energy efficient device for using these briquettes for steam cooking," she explains.

Karve smilingly admits that inventing a cooking stove for rural women is "not very glamorous". But she wants to change that, "Technically it is much more difficult to design an efficient, user-friendly stove than it is to design a rocket engine!"

(Text by Suchismita Pai)

BINITA TOPPO DRIBBLES HER WAY TO A BETTER LIFE
At Yuwa, a community sports centre on the outskirts of Ranchi, Jharkhand's state capital, Binita Toppo, 16, trains on the football field in the hope of earning a better living. The petite, five-foot teenager had started practicing when she was just 13. Today, she's at the nets all day, perfecting her game as a goalkeeper. And that's not all. The first in her family to have completed school, she is also a trained coach from the Tata Football Academy and the Baichung Bhutia Football School, sharing her game-changing strategies with other girls, even as she prepares to go to a college for her higher studies. "Football was initially just another game for me. Now it is my passion. Even my family's income has doubled since I started playing," she remarks confidently.

Binita is lucky that "she has found a goal" in life, something not many of her sex can claim to have done. And she is proving to be a real torchbearer of change. Until a few years ago, in Binita's remote Hutup village, where the Yuwa centre is located, all that the local girls were expected to do was cook food and take care of their younger siblings. Today, these very families are encouraging their daughters to follow in Binita's footsteps.

Her mother, Sundo Devi is very proud of Binita's achievements, "According to the social norms in this region, my elder daughters were married off when they were very young. But Binita made it clear that she will not compromise in any way. She will study for as long as she wants to."

(Text by Saadia Azim)

BARMER'S MOM-PRADHAN SHAMA KHAN MAKES HER MARK
There is very little that distinguishes Chohtan panchayat samiti from the seven others in Barmer district in southwestern Rajasthan except for one fact: Its 'pradhan' is an educated woman. Meeting an educated woman in these parts is as rare as sighting water. What further distinguishes Shama Khan, 28, a law graduate, is the fact that among the women sarpanches and samiti members that make up the Chohtan panchayat samiti, she is the only one who is not illiterate.

Though this young wife and mother to a three-year-old daughter had never planned to become a people's representative, from the time she was elected as pradhan in 2010, Khan has put a premium on education. Her primary agenda has been to see more children, especially girls, in the classroom. Whenever she goes on the rounds of the villages she randomly walks into homes urging families to send their children to school.

Her efforts have paid off. In less than two years, enrolment in the area has gone up from 550 to 6,550. "I am the only woman here who is a graduate. Most families in the panchayat are either minorities (Sindhi Muslims) or from Scheduled Caste backgrounds. They have never sent their girls to school. But now things are looking up. During school inspections, I find a lot more girls around. They say they want to be like me and I am happy to be a role model for them," says Khan.

Her work received national recognition recently, with the Union Minister of Panchayati Raj and Tribal Affairs V. Kishore Chandra Deo conferring on her the first-ever Panchayat Sashaktikaran Puraskar.

(Text by Renu Rakesh)

AT 13, SITA IS AN UNASSUMING HEROINE
Where the biggest dilemmas a big city teenager is faced with are what movie to watch on the weekend or which dress to buy, Sita Verma is worried about when she will cook her next meal or how she can get her siblings to study. Running the household comes easy to this 13-year-old from Bangra village in Hamirpur district of Uttar Pradesh.

For eight months in a year, Sita not only manages her home single-handedly but also looks after her seven-year-old sister and ten-year-old brother. That's because her parents and elder brother travel to faraway Delhi to earn money.

It's a lonely existence for the three youngsters left behind, but Sita has a pragmatic outlook now, "I do miss my mother everyday but I know my parents have to go. How else will my father manage to provide for us? By looking after the home, I am doing my bit."

From waking up early at 5am to finishing the household chores to helping her siblings get ready for school before she herself leaves for her classes that begin at 8.30, Sita goes about her daily grind without complaining. But there is one task that wipes the beautiful smile off her face: That of sourcing water.

While accessing drinking water is the bane of everyone's existence in a village that falls in the drought-affected Bundelkhand region of UP, for those of the Dalit community like Sita, it is even more difficult. "I am always tense in the morning. Because untouchability is still very strongly rooted here so much time is wasted in water collection. I don't think one should discriminate against anyone on the basis of their caste or community." At 13, shouldn't water woes and community fights be the least of Sita's worries?

(Text by Aditi Bishnoi)

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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