We entered the state of Jharkhand on a dusky afternoon amidst the sprawling open fields of paddy crops against the backdrop of a dramatic sunset. As the train rumbled along I found myself daydreaming about the existence of the farmers that cultivate this land. I wondered about the harshness of rural life associated with long days of backbreaking labour under the debilitating heat of the sun. I also considered what this must be like for women, and women with disabilities who have been unable to escape a cycle of poverty in which their existence hinges on unstable livelihoods mechanisms such as daily waged labour. I thought about children as they grew within the communities that dotted the horizon, did they have equal access to education? Were they able to attend school outside of the household demands on their day towards assisting their parents in their day to day survival? I wasn’t sure of any of these details but was keen to find them out for myself.
After an initial half day in the office we drove out to a community site in which a strong women’s only Self Help Group (SHG) had been assisted in formation. As we entered the community I caught sight of a large group of local Adivasi women in their traditional tribal dress. The Adivasi people are the indigenous inhabitants of the region and continue to face endemic challenges relating to their development, inclusion and empowerment. Despite all these elements, I instinctively felt the warmth and pride that they exuded in welcoming us into their community. After we had been garlanded a discussion formed within a smaller group of the communal gathering, of which I learnt were representatives of the local SHG. All of the group’s members were women and had formed this entity due to not being able to effectively input into and influence inclusive groups in which men were active members in the past.
I was very much interested in this element and further questioned the women about their reasoning for the formation of this group. The narrative that emerged was that in their previous SHG, women members, especially those with disabilities felt an inability to not only participate in group activities, but also to avail revolving funds to access vocational training pertaining to the group’s micro-finance opportunities. Essentially, due to deeply entrenched patriarchal conditions they were being crowded out of the process towards their own development. The importance of consideration of different groups amongst those with disabilities seemed none more prevalent that in that instant. After all, it’s easy to forget that people with disabilities are not actually a homogenous group. The situation of women with disabilities and the specific barriers they face are very different to those of their male counterparts and needed to be treated as such.
While I continued to watch and interact with members of the community, I was taken aback at how vocal the female members of this SHG were. When I commented on this to a member of the local Partner team they filled me in on just how far these women had come since the inception of the group. Prior to forming, the majority of these women barely came out of their homes without their husband’s presence and permission. Yet, a mere 5 years later, here they were sitting, talking and interacting with strangers and lobbying for their rights directly to local Government institutions. Through their collective voice they had enacted change for all people with disabilities within their communities whilst also making strides in breaking down taboos associated with what women with disabilities are capable of.
Leaving the community I felt such a sense of pride and sisterhood with these women. By being assisted to form their group, they had also gradually built up their own confidence towards changing the scope of their lives and that of their families. They had also become one of the most vocal and consistent accountability mechanisms for the provision of government schemes and services to persons with disabilities in their village, block and region. These tribal women, in this sand covered remote region of Dumka, Jharkhand had managed to break the glass ceiling that continues to limit many others around the world in its most basic form. I left the village with a smile that I am yet to wipe of my face even as of today.