It is a commonly-held notion that in India, social change cannot be driven by a single individual. While it may be true that organisational initiatives are more effective in driving change than individual efforts, it would be extremely foolhardy of us to discount or dismiss the ‘power of individual’.
Take for example, these five extraordinary women who are driving significant social changes in India – either through organisations which they have founded, or single-handedly:
The daughter of a pujari (priestess) and a history, 53-year-old Lakshmi started the Kanakdhara Foundation when she saw how widows in Brindavan led their lives with absolute lack of dignity.
Coming from different parts of the country, these women are deprived in every respect, including their right to an identification record. Lakshmi decided to provide them with healthcare, food, shelter and financial help.
All the drivers and owners taxis, auto-rickshaws and horse-drawn carriages have Lakshmi’s contact on speed-dial. They can call her at any time, day or night, to inform her if any woman needs her assistance. She also ensures that women who die in the absence of any close relatives are given their last rites with due respect and dignity.
Her home is like an ashram, where helpless and destitute women are looked after like family members. Even the police sometimes drops o women who have nowhere to go. This has been Lakshmi’s life for over two decades.
It is not surprising then that she has been recognised as one of top 100 women achievers in India by the President of India. The Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited her to Delhi to discuss the plight of the destitute women in Brindavan and was brought to tears by the stories she narrated.
In 1997, Lakshmi was recognized as the ‘Mother of Vrindavan’ for her services to women. In 2005, she was named the ‘Angel of Brindavan.’
She has also been awarded the Real Hero, Jeejabhoy, Nari Shakti and Brij Gaurav Awards. She has also won the ‘Women Transforming India’ award in 2016.
Nirmal’s life in the remote Sarkaghat village of Himachal Pradesh changed dramatically when she was widowed at 23 years of age, just two years after her marriage. Her saving grace was that she was a Matriculate.
A year later, she broke the taboos surrounding her widowhood. She escaped to work independently with an NGO, Social Uplift Through Rural Action (SUTRA) in Solan district.
She had never imagined that this would be her first step towards working for the empowerment of single women – especially poor, jobless widows, divorcees and deserted women, who are often cursed, harassed and abandoned by the society up there in the hills.
She shares the distress of the single and widowed women she encountered. She stresses especially on the denial of their rights, their exclusion from matters of inheritance and their inability to fight against or be free of these circumstances. After all, the 300,000-odd single women in Himachal Pradesh are mostly widows and lack a voice.
In 2005, motivated by a meeting in Rajasthan, Nirmal formed the Ekal Nari Shakti Sangathan (ENSS) in Himachal Pradesh with support from SUTRA.
From the initial 120 women, ENSS’ membership has grown to 14,369, covering seven districts of the state. In 2008, Nirmal led a 45-kilometre march, along with 3538 rural widows, divorcees and deserted women to the state’s headquarters in Shimla.
This effort shook up the system and instilled confidence in the women to fight for their rights and dignity. For the first time, the political leadership recognised the need to include them in policy matters and incorporated them as an entity in the state’s budget schemes. The state also instituted a scheme to provide financial help to single mothers for their children and made also gave them certain employment opportunities.
The ENSS also won the Ashoka Changemakers Competition in 2011. The women are petitioning the government for ‘land on lease’, which they need for a collective venture on self-sustenance. Today, Nirmal also heads a national forum fighting for the rights of single women.
For these efforts, Nirmal Chandel was given the ‘Women Transforming India’ award in 2016.
Souvik Pal, a student of the 10th standard in a school in Delhi has written a paean to the 104-year-old Kuwarbai. This diminutive woman sold her only assets (a few goats) to pay for building a toilet.
By doing so, she has set an example for the 450 residents of her village. The message is that even in the midst of poverty, it is very important to maintain clean and hygienic living conditions.
Kuwarbai’s action was based on what she came to know at a community event. She learnt that open defecation not only led to a host of diseases, but also had a negative impact on the environment. She immediately decided to sell her goats to build a toilet in her home.
Gradually, Kuwarbai also exhorted other villagers to do the same. Inspired by her enthusiasm and spirit, the Dhamtari administration redoubled its efforts under the Swachh Bharat Mission. They were also provided subsidies for building toilets in the village, under the MNREGA scheme.
In July 2015, Kotabharri was declared an open-defecation-free village. In February 2016, the Prime Minister felicitated Kuwarbai, and acknowledged that despite her age and limitations, she was a living embodiment of how India was changing.
Kuwarbai Yadav was therefore, a deserving winner of the ‘Women Transforming India’ award in 2016.
The gang-rape of a young medical student in Delhi in December 2012 gave ElsaMarie D’Silva the impetus to give up her aviation career. Instead, she set up Safecity to highlight the issue of sexual violence.
Safecity is a platform that crowdsources personal stories of sexual harassment and abuse in public spaces. This data is then aggregated as hot-spots on a map, indicating trends at a local level. The intention is to make this local data available for individuals, communities and the administration to understand what factors lead to sexual violence. The intention is help in the framing of policies addressing sexual violence.
Under ElsaMarie’s leadership, Safecity is now working with partners in three countries and has impacted more than 100,000 people. The site has gathered more than 8,500 stories from 50 cities in India, Nepal, Kenya and Cameroon – thereby making it the largest crowd map on this subject.
More than 6000 people have attended Safecity’s awareness workshops. More than 10,000 families have also experienced the positive impacts of its neighbourhood campaigns in Delhi, Mumbai, Pune and Goa.
Safecity has demonstrated how crowdsourced data can impact institutional accountability and police vigilance. It seeks to work with and strengthen existing institutions. For this purpose, it sends monthly trend reports on experiences of sexual violence (which are registered on the site) to the police in Mumbai, Delhi and Goa.
Safecity has received extensive national and international press coverage. It was listed as one of 100 most inspiring social innovations in the world in 2015 by Nominet Trust. It has also been awarded the Manthan and Social Good for Empowerment awards, and was amongst the 10 finalists at the UN Alliance of Civilization’s Intercultural Innovation Award, 2016. ElsaMarie D’Silva received the ‘Women Transforming India’ award in 2016.
When she was working at a quarry and as a agricultural labourer, Lalithabai had never thought of the impact she would have on the lives of thousands of women in rural Karnataka.
However, after she joined the Bharati Agro Industries Federation as a health worker to train members of self-help groups, her life began to change.
Her journey to becoming an inspiring role model truly began when TIDE trained her to construct smokeless and fuel- efficient household chulhas called Sarala stoves. She understood that building Sarala stoves could be a means to earn a good income, while simultaneously improving the lives and health of rural women like her.
Since then, Lalithabai has been instrumental in setting up an enterprise that has constructed more than 10,000 Sarala stoves in three years and created a new revenue-stream for the women of her community.
Travelling from village to village for her stove- installation business, Lalithabai has built more than 25,000 Sarala stoves all over Karnataka, with the support of the Forest Department and other NGOs. This feat that has earned her the affectionate moniker of volli amma (stove mother) in rural Karnataka.
Despite being active in many other social welfare activities, Lalithabai always participates in all stove-construction training programmes of TIDE to motivate women to take up stove- construction and become self-empowered like herself. Her inspiring leadership has ensured livelihoods, independence and financial security for rural women in Karnataka.
Therefore, it wasn’t surprising at all when she was awarded the ‘Women Transforming India’ award in 2016!
Women Transforming India is an online contest seeking stories of women making a difference. In its second edition, Women Transform invites you to share stories about women change-makers by submitting a video, a photo, or an article of a woman breaking stereotypes. This could be your story or that of a woman you know.
1. Short video or photo: This can be a homemade video, shot on the mobile phone, accompanied by a short caption (upto 50 words).
2. Written profile: Upto 500 words.