Many strong women have made Jagrath Mahila Sangathan what it is: a platform for Sahariya women to articulate their issues, organise against injustice and work for change. A registered non-government organisation, with its base in Mamoni village in Rajasthan’s Baran district, it has tackled issues ranging from bonded labour to health care delivery.
How have ordinary tribal women with hardly any schooling – the 2001 census indicated that in Rajasthan only 18.7 per cent Sahariya women had basic literacy – been able to emerge as significant agents of grassroots change? “First we had to change ourselves before we could do anything about our community,” smiled Gyarsi Bai Sahariya, in her late fifties, who has been awarded by the Rajasthan government for her community services.
Change came literally knocking at her door in the form of Charu Mitra, a social activist. “In the early nineties, I was just an ordinary village woman afraid to even step out of my home. Then Charu behenji came to do a gender training in the village. She wanted me to get involved in getting girls to go to school. I was reluctant but she kept insisting, saying that it was my duty to help the Sahariya community. Finally, with my husband’s permission, I agreed,” she recalled.
the Sahariyas in the region, and Aruna Roy, whose campaign for right to information was gathering pace.
At the same time, the idea of setting up an organisation for Sahariya women was taking shape and in 2002, Charu Mitra, along with Moti Lal and others in Sankalp, had it registered under the name of Jagrath Mahila Sangathan (JMS). Today, this organisation has a presence in 12 blocks in the region. “We registered our organisation so that it would able to raise funds and keep our work going. Recently, Moti Lalji has transferred all the assets of Sankalp to JMS and each of our 1,500 members pays an annual fee of
Rs 25,” revealed Gyarsi Bai.
part in meetings and dharnas, we began to understand that women enjoyed rights, too,” explained Gyarsi Bai.
Her sister-in-arms and senior JMS member, Jasodha Bai Sahariya of Kherwa village, talked about how difficult it sometimes was to address domestic violence. “We often faced the anger of the husbands – gali dete the, they would abuse us. But we have learnt not to be deterred. If we felt a woman under assault needed to go back to her parents’ home, we ensured this happened. If an FIR had to be registered, this too we did,” she stated. Interestingly, the mobile phone came in handy. Everybody in the villages where JMS worked had the phone numbers of JMS leaders and they could always be called in an emergency. Predictably, emergencies invariably arose. For instance, once there was a dispute that involved a local Bengali couple. When the wife – who had just given birth – wanted to return to her family home, the husband’s family insisted on keeping the child. “We intervened at the time, explaining that the mother was still feeding the child, and finally we were able to unite the baby with the mother,” recalled Jasoda.
The JMS has had to intervene in several rape cases as well, and here their credibility has stood them in good stead. “Two years ago, two sisters were raped but the local police station had refused to register a case. Then we approached the Nahargarh police station. They registered it as a bailable offence. We had to talk to the chief minister for it to be registered properly and the perpetrators brought to justice,” Jasoda said.
law recognises women’s equal right to property, they are discriminated against even when land pattas are distributed by the government. That is why the JMS demanded equal rights to land and the issuing of joint pattas,” said Kalyani Bai, who, incidentally, came into the movement through an early association with the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS). “I was 15 when my mother died. My father then married me into a poor household, where we had to even clear the gobar of the sardar’s family. But I always wanted to do something with my life. My chance came when the MKSS organised a group in our area,” she revealed.
Once, when she was headed for a meeting, wearing her ghunghat over her face, she happened to spot some men measuring the land that the community was tilling. “I immediately went back and told the others, and a group of us confronted the men and chased them away. The fact that we could stop them encouraged me to carry on. Ever since my youngest child turned 12, I would leave the children at home and go out even when people whispered that I was up to no good,” she added.
The JMS’s interventions have been many and varied. Not only do its members accompany poor women to the hospital, the organisation has been closely involved in liberating the bonded labourers of Sunda village and fighting for forest rights in Shahabad.
“We have learnt about right to information and right to food. I have been able to go to places like Mount Abu, Udaipur, Bhopal, Shivpuri, Gwalior and Mumbai. I have been to Niyamgiri in Odisha to express my solidarity with the Dongria Kondhs. We are all tribals, after all!” concluded Gyarsi Bai.