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“Women must be put in a position to solve their problems in their own way. No one can or ought to do this for them. Our Indian women are capable of doing it as any in the world.” - Swami Vivekananda

Ratnamma. Photo: PIB

Ratnamma is today  president of a federation of over 10,000 women members of Self-help Groups (SHGs) in Orvakkal mandal of Kurnool district in Andhra Pradesh. But not long ago, Ratnamma’s life was a case of discrimination, injustice, insults and poverty. Born into a poor untouchable family, she had to feed her five children with the meager income she could earn by fetching firewood from the nearby hillocks. Since her husband was a bonded-laborer, tied to a rich farmer for the debt owed by his father and grandfather, his contribution to the livelihood of the family was nil.

Ratnamma had to work from dawn to dusk, fetching the firewood to sell to the villagers in weekly fair. Though she would get Rs. 20 for a stack of firewood, this was hardly adequate to get a decent meal to her and the children. Her husband, who was working for the landlord to clear the debt, rarely he would show up at home. She had no answer when the kids asked about the absence of their father in the house. The loneliness used to haunt her and she endured all this in silence.

Having four daughters was seen as curse among the relatives who always talked ill of her. “It was this humiliation that hurt me more rather than the poverty I was in,” she said. “None of the children were in school. In those days my eldest daughter was 12 year old. She used to work in the cotton farms. She would go in morning and return in the evening. She often fell sick because of the chemical fumes she inhaled in the cotton farm,” Ratnamma recalls.

The evil of untouchability was rampant in the village. Poor were barred from passing through the village with footwear. This was the plight of all the people from the poor families.

But the entry of volunteers of South Asia Poverty Alleviation Program raised the hopes for a change. Ratnamma was spotted by the group which encouraged her to join the SHG. But the big question before Ratnamma was - what she could do in a thrift group when her entire earning was not enough to have square meals a day.

Encouraged by the volunteers, she finally decided to join one of the SHGs. The SHGs conducted four meetings in a month in which the members discussed the day-to-day problems of their families and tried to find solutions together. In one of the meetings, Ratnamma’s struggle became the topic for discussion and it was decided that freeing of her husband from the slavery would help her family immensely.

The Group decided to give her a loan to repay the debt of the landlord and free her husband. The freedom of her husband heralded a new phase in her life. Both husband and wife joined hands to earn more money, the income level rose and gradually the loan was also cleared with their thrift amount.

The coming together of these women also led to a realization that banishing the bonded labor and child-labor from the village would pave the way for the welfare of the girl child. So, a school was set up by the SHG federation for those children who worked in farms and Ratnamma’s eldest daughter was the first to get enrolled as a student. The hamlet reverberated with the recital of alphabet of first generation students from the unlettered families.

Ratnamma recalls: “I was married off at a tender age of 13. Had I not joined the SHG that enlightened me, my daughter also would have fallen victim to the age-old practice of child-marriage.” It took great courage for Ratnamma to resist the pressure from the members of caste and relatives who opposed the enrollment of her eldest daughter in the school. She was a pioneer in promoting girl child education in that village. Later on fifty poor families in that village followed her and send their children to the child labour camp.

“Change is never welcomed with open arms. You need to summon a lot of courage to face the resistance. My experience has proven that resistance could be won over as a collective. First everybody was hesitant to join the SHG. Once I took the lead, many had followed me,” Ratnamma recalls.

She still remembers how she began as member of the group, then became leader of the village organization and also worked as the president of the federation. “Sometimes the fact that I had taken as much as Rs 9.5 lakh from the Group reminds the long road I traveled. Now I am owner of a two-acre farm and cozy house. My husband is a land-owning farmer. Nobody would have thought that three daughters of a poor once-untouchable woman have completed general nursing and the fourth is in an undergraduate and my son is doing B.Tech. My daughters are working in the hospitals as general nurses.”

This is not the story of one Ratnamma but many women who have come out of poverty by becoming members of SHGs across the country.

Source: PIB Features

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