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Originally produced for UNICEF



Chandrakanti

In 1993, when Rahmet and Hari Shankar from the NGO Rural Education and Development (READ) came to our village, everyone ran away. We thought they were criminals. They seemed to have criminal personalities because they were very confident. They sat down in the village and sang songs. Some of the women were curious because it was very funny. Eventually they spoke with the two men, but always with their faces covered. Rahmet and Hari Shankar learned about me from these women. I have been educated to Grade 10 and also took two years of teacher training, but I am as poor as everyone else here. I stayed at home just like all the other women. My education had not really changed anything in my life until CCA (Convergent Community Action) came along.

Rahmet and Hari Shankar came to my home and asked me to come to a workshop in the district headquarters, Bettiah, so that I could learn how to help my family and the village. I was very frightened. I had never been to that place. It is at least a four hour drive by bus and the roads are very bad. And my family was opposed. They thought that if I went to Bettiah I would get sold into the racket of the sex workers. So I didn't go to the training.

Two months later Tapas Datta from UNICEF came to our village. My name had been given in for the training and he wanted to know why I had not gone. He sat with my family and we discussed the problem. He finally convinced us to come to Bettiah to see the place where the training would be held, and where I would sleep if I agreed to join. I went there with my husband. We saw Rahmet and Hari Shankar and realized that they were not criminals and we agreed that I could attend the next training, which would last ten days.

I went with two other women from the village for the training, which began on 4 December 1993. I remember it very well. There were about twenty women from different villages and right at the beginning, each of us was asked to give our names and say where we came from. When it was my turn, I was so frightened I was shaking and I could not even speak my own name. During that week we laughed a lot because we learned such things as how to walk standing upright and looking straight ahead. We practiced speaking without covering our mouths and eating without hiding our faces. We also played a game that was to do with rings and numbers. I thought it was very strange. "Why did they bring us here to play games?" I thought. But then I learned the point of it. It was impossible to play this game alone. It was only possible if you joined up with others, in a group. Then the problem could be solved. We talked about the way things were in the village, about our problems with the moneylenders. We talked about how we suffered in silence and were fatalistic people who thought we could do nothing to change our situation. We began discussing how, by helping each other, we could solve some of these difficulties.

Then something very extraordinary happened. I was pregnant, went into labour and gave birth to a daughter in the READ hostel. I was sad when I found I had given birth to a girl, because that is the way things are with us. We prefer sons because they always stay with the family whereas daughters always leave. But with the trainers at READ we began talking about how things were for girls in the village. We said that we never discussed the health of our daughters. It just wasn't a concern. We only cared about the health of our sons. We never thought about educating our daughters either and we only had celebrations for the births of sons.

It was decided by all the women at that training that we would celebrate the birth of my daughter. We sang the traditional songs called Sohar, performed dances of the Tharu and Oraon and distributed sweets. It was the first time that any of us had ever heard of or done such a thing for a girl.

When I returned home to the village with my daughter, my family was not pleased because they had hoped for a son. I didn't say anything at first but the other women who had come to the training spread the word that the birth of a daughter had been celebrated. People were shocked. "How is this possible!"

My family asked if it was true and I said yes. I had decided not to be sad over the birth of a girl. People began to think about this and gradually others also began celebrating the birth of daughters.

When my daughter was fifteen days old, the nurse came to the village to give immunizations. Usually we only took older children for immunization, never very young babies, but because of the training I took my daughter for immunization. My family was opposed and afraid that the baby would get sick but she was fine. The news of this also spread in the village and it helped to convince people to immunize infants.

Rehmut and Hari Shankar kept coming to the village and those of us who had gone for training would sit with them. Together we sang songs about the village and about how people could improve their own lives. The songs attracted other women and I encouraged them to sit with us, to sing and to talk about forming a samiti, which is a kind of village council. Again, everyone was shocked. "How can women have Samitis?" they said. "It is not possible. Only men have Samitis."

But we kept persevering. We held meetings for the entire community, men and women, and talked about the things we had learned during the training, about immunization and sanitation and about oral rehydration solution (ORS). We had some of the ORS packets with us and it was this that really got peoples' attention. They had never heard of ORS before and many of our children got sick with diarrhoea.

After four of these meetings we finally had twenty women who were willing to join together to form our first group., Today we have three such groups in the village and every poor household is represented. Our lives have been transformed. We have escaped from the clutches of moneylenders, saved a total of Rs 31,204.00 and taken a loan of Rs. 110,976 to start small businesses including a weaving business, a medicine shop, and a store selling diesel, kerosene and grain. We manufacture cover for latrines, have cleaned up our village and now have a source of clean drinking water. Members of our groups have competed for and taken on construction projects from the Block authorities, fixing roads and putting up community buildings. We have used our funds to help group members facing emergencies. There is a school in our village but only high caste children used to attend. In any case the teacher was always absent. We found a boy in the village who is educated and we pay Rs. 5 per child per month. Now all our children go to school and all of our children are immunized.

I am now the coordinator for women's samitis in Mainatanr Block. We have 45 groups in this Block with 1505 members. In January 2001, we formed a Women's Federation, called Paschim Champaran Zilla Gramin Mahila Vikas Swalambi Sahkari Samiti Lrd. Which brings together all the groups under our own organization. We are still poor but we are not afraid anymore. At first we suffered a lot of ridicule and abuse from the men in our community but because of our achievements we have won respect from many people. We sing a song at our meetings:

CCA has come as a ray of light to the village
Now we see a new tomorrow
For a long time we suffered pain and hurt
We have overcome all that
By joining hands with the women's samiti
Now we have money
And are not dependent anymore