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Dealt a raw deal early in life, she now helps women in distress

Over the past few years, like many other women in Petlawad, Jhabua, Madhya Pradesh, who first become members of self-help groups and gradually connect with federations as well, today 27-year-old Nirmala has understood the value of working within women’s collectives. Sushmita Malaviya describes her journey – from defending women’s rights and focusing on gender-based violence to coordinating with the Nari Adhikar Kendra, Lok Adhikar Kendra and the local police

When Nirmala Meda was expecting her fourth child in 2018, she noticed her husband’s attitude towards her had changed. “He is a driver and also works as an electrician. While I worked on the farm and looked after the children, he would often be out on work. On his return home, he would be drunk, would beat me and say – leave the house, I am bringing in another wife!”  By 2021, she found out that her husband had married another woman.

In August 2021, Nirmala’s worst nightmare found her badly beaten by her husband’s second wife’s brothers and thrown out of her home, along with her children and mother-in-law. Within her tribal community of Bhils who live across the region between three West-Central Indian States – Banswada (Rajasthan), Jhabua (Madhya Pradesh) and Dahod (Gujarat), Nirmala was just another woman faced with the traditional practice of polygamy.

Over the past few years, like many other women in Petlawad, Jhabua, who first become members of self-help groups (SHGs) and gradually connect with federations as well, today 27-year-old Nirmala has understood the value of working within women’s collectives.As the Nari Shakti Sankool Sanghatan Petlawar President Nirmala Meda says, “Our Sankool has been working on the issue of women’s rights, gender, panchayati raj as well as education. We have identified domestic abuse and are working to resolve them.”

Access to information, training and community support are going a long way in empowering women like Nirmala to come together to rally around each other. To their credit they have registered 97 cases where men have left the first wife without financial support to sustain herself and her children. Speaking about her journey to defending women’s rights, Nirmala says she was married off in 2010 when she was completing her Class VII. “I was engaged to be married much earlier, and this was a marriage by choice. I knew and liked my husband. After my marriage I was able to finish my schooling until Class X,” she says.

She devotes time for spreading awareness about government-related schemes for women.

The power of economic stability
In 2013, Nirmala joined the government-supported SHG named the Ambe Mata Samooh. “At that time, as a group of 10 women, we would collect Rs 20 every week and manage our needs. In 2014, our samooh (group) joined the Gram Sangathan, then the Sankool, and then we were able to access loans,” she explains. Through the SHG, her first loan for Rs 15,000 was for a sewing machine, followed by Rs 50,000 for goat rearing, Rs 70,000 to grow vegetables and fruits as well as for expenses for her children. The next amount Rs 150,000 she took was to buy herself a Scooty. “I have since repaid all my loans along with the interest due. Most of our samooh members have accessed these loans for similar needs and have paid the loans back,” she says with pride, adding that to date her group has accessed loans worth Rs 6 lakh.

Ankit Raj Block Engagement Manger Petlawad Transform Rural India (https://www.trif.in/), which provides technical assistance to the Madhya Pradesh Government’s State Rural Livelihood Mission, explains that Nirmala along with many other women from the SHGs underwent a six-module gender training. After attending the gender-training workshop and understanding women’s rights in 2021, Nirmala spoke to her mother-in-law, 65-year-old Berkhi Bai, and with the support of the panchayat, added Nirmala’s name to eight acres of land that her husband had.  That is the time her husband threw her out of the home. She says wistfully, “When my father-in-law passed away, my husband demanded more children. At a time, I was pressing for a sterilisation operation soon after my first son was born.” Today she lives with her parents and has sent her three children to the Mission School and only the youngest son who is four years old lives with her.

Nirmala (third from right) at a community meeting.

Helping women in similar circumstances
Following the gender training, Nirmala, along with other women, have been able to identify women who have been left to fend on their own because their husbands have taken a second wife. Wherever possible, the issues are raised at the Nari Adhikar Kendra. If the woman permits, the meeting can be held at the gram sabha (general assembly of people in a village). If she is reluctant, the meeting is done one-to-one in the homes of the family.

Nirmala specifically has been working continuously on gender-based violence, coordinating with the Nari Adhikar Kendra, Lok Adhikar Kendra, the local police, and the one-stop centre. She is creating awareness about gender discrimination and working with the Lok Adhikar Kendra to support multiple SHG members who are victims of gender-based violence. She is also part of gender forum at the panchayat and block level.

Ankit says if the matter is not resolved through consultation, it is taken up to the Lok Adhikar Kendra. “At all times, the effort is to have a resolution through consultation with the husband. To convince him that he should support the first wife and children, ensure they have a means to an income. Wherever possible, advocate for land to be given to the women for them to eke out a living,” he says. If all this fails, the husband is informed that legal recourse is the only way forward. Ankit adds that the gender training is now focusing on providing information about the Hindu Marriage Act and preparing the community to begin to think of ensuring that women have land in their name so that they can take up work under MNREGA for composting work under NADAP, or rear livestock.

In her small tribal Village Baradiya, Tehsil Petlawar, which still has no roads, Nirmala is moving away from accepting the Bhil way of life. “Under the Mera Haq Mera Pechan campaign, we have learned about gender – men, women and transgenders. We found many women living with their husbands and the second wife, too. In some cases, we have been successful in getting the first wife a home,” she says. Even as she struggles with lack of support from the community while helping other SHG members facing abandonment, she says there is a stark lack of assistance from government departments and panchayat over issues of entitlements gender violence. Nirmala says it’s her vision to “help all the SHGs members of Petlawad to fight against gender discrimination and ensure that women who need support get access to government schemes as well as land rights.”

(A Charles Wallace Visiting Fellow at Cardiff University, UK, media fellow for the National Foundation for India, New Delhi, Grouppe Development, Kolkata, and Sathi, Bengaluru, the writer has worked with Hindustan Times, Central Chronicle (both in Bhopal), The Patriot and The Statesman, Delhi. Since 2007, she has been supporting large public health programmes in India such as polio, routine immunisation, family planning, tuberculosis and nutrition. She continues to explore the relationship between environment and public health in India in her writings.)

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