INDIA Sukmati realises her potential

 India
 Education
 6th Feb 2008

Coming from an extremely poor family, the road to holding office in the local village council (Panchayat) was a long and arduous one for Sukmati.

Her parents never wanted her to study. At a well-wisher's intervention, her father agreed to send her to primary school only, where Sukmati’s love for education took root. Sukmati wanted to carry on with school, but her parents would not have any of it. What can a girl do after education, they asked, when her primary role in life was to get married, go to her husband's house, bear his children and look after her family? If a girl goes to school, they said, educated, "modern" thoughts would pollute her mind! Above all, it was so hard to make ends meet; why would they spend money on something as frivolous as a girl’s education?

Her father's drunken, merciless thrashing made Sukmati even more determined to continue with school. She began to work as a laborer doing odd jobs in brick kilns, laying stones for road repair, and building houses. Less than ten years old, she did whatever she could to earn the money to stay in school. Eventually, she began to attend special classes on weekends only, working through the week. She made friends with senior students, who shared their books and tutorials with her, so that she could keep up with the coursework.

Sukmati contemplated suicide many times, when she felt burdened with earning money, looking after her siblings, and especially when her father hit her. But, a voice within her urged her to fight back. Once, when her father threw her out of the house in a fit of rage, she had to spend the night in the forest. Despite all this, Sukmati stood her ground.

When Sukmati grew older, she enrolled herself in a higher secondary school and walked six kilometers there and back everyday. But this was a problem. People in the village were saying, "Sukmati has no character," and so her family wanted to get her married off as quickly as possible. Nobody will marry her! She probably doesn’t want to get married! There was no end to these voices. Men and boys leered at her, making indecent advances or taunting her with remarks laden with sexual innuendo. But Sukmati braved her way through all of it.

One day, a friend introduced Sukmati to the secretary of a grassroots development organisation, who was looking for educated young people to work for him in partnership with CARE's project in the tribal region of Dantewada to which Sukmati belonged. She had never done the sort of work for which she might be hired, but she made a bid for it anyway. She said, "If I could work as a labourer to continue my studies, I can do anything!" Above all, it was Sukmati’s willingness to learn that got her the job.

Supported by the CARE team, she underwent multiple rounds of capacity building on women’s issues including the care of the pregnant women, how to look after new born babies, and how to organise communities around issues that concerned their lives, especially health. These sessions opened up a whole new world for her. She began to visit households, talk to women, tell them about their rights and found that she was able to motivate them to come forward and speak out for themselves.

Soon, Sukmati had carved out a new niche for herself in the very society that had once taunted her. They looked upon her with reverence. The people who passed unkind remarks about her now feared her. It was not a fear of violence, but a psychological fear. The kind that grows with the strength of the oppressed. The kind that can send a chill down the spine of oppressors.

When it was time for the local panchayat elections, Sukmati was in her element, motivating women to come forward and contest for public office. She would go from house to house, encouraging women to stand up for their rights, to stand for elections and to support other deserving women candidates. What Sukmati did not know was that these women wanted her to represent their needs and concerns in the political arena. Initially, Sukmati resisted the idea. But the pressure grew, and she relented. When the results of the polls were declared, Sukmati found that she had been unanimously elected as a member of the panchayat. She embraced her new role enthusiastically, and promised to give it her best.

Today, Sukmati is married to a local school teacher. She is completing her graduate studies, is associated with CARE and continues to work for the community in her new public role. She says, "One day I will head the local government, and who knows, I may even make it to a ministerial position in the state legislative assembly!" At just 24, Sukmati certainly has the potential.

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