Tragedies can be great motivators. In the case of Anita Gupta, witnessing domestic violence intimately was what pushed her to do something for herself as well as other rural women going through the same fate.
“My father passed away when I was a child, and my mother had the difficult task of feeding seven children. We started living with my maternal grandparents. My grandfather had three sons, all of whom passed away; so he ‘bought’ a young girl to bear him children. She gave birth to two sons and two daughters. She was brutally tortured – she wasn’t allowed to feed or hold her children and was beaten up every day,” she narrates.
Her plight made Anita realise she may end up with the same fate if she did not become independent. She says, “I wondered if my grandfather would have had the audacity to beat her if she was educated or did not belong to a poor family.”
Anita, who hails from Arrah, Bihar, started Bhojpur Mahila Kala Kendra in 1993 along with her younger brother, Santosh Kumar. More than 25,000 women have been trained by the NGO in 400 skills by the organisation. She has also set up more than 300 self help groups (SHGs) to conduct health check-up camps, impart adult education, vocational training, and create awareness programmes on water usage and sanitation. The group is supported by Pact, an international development organisation.
Learning New Skills
The women working with Bhojpur Mahila Kala Kendra make crochet jewellery and sell it at government-organised fairs and at jewellery stores in various cities in India through an agency in Delhi. The agency has also helped them bag clients from abroad, Anita says. “They buy the products from us and then sell it in India as well as in ths US, Japan, Turkey, Russia, and Canada,” she adds.
Anita says she will be listing her products on Amazon India by the end of March. “We are also launching our website around the same time,” she adds.
Anita is also a member of Usha Silai School, which runs more than 3,000 sewing schools across Bihar and Jharkhand. She informs, “There are 8-10 women in each school. They are taught by ladies who run boutiques or tailoring shops. Many women who had enrolled in the course now run their own sewing schools and boutiques. Many are making (and selling) quilts and mosquito nets.”
Anita was recently felicitated with the Jijabai Award in January this year by Shivaji College for her contribution to women empowerment. The organisation was conferred with the Brands of India Award by the Ministry of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises last year. She was also awarded HerStory’s Women on a Mission award by Sudha Murty, chairperson of the Infosys foundation. In 2008, Anita was also honoured by the Government of Bihar for her work towards empowering women.
A road riddled with challenges
When Anita and her brother Santosh started their journey, tackling the patriarchal and regressive mindset in the villages proved to be the biggest challenge. Women were reluctant to step out of their houses, and their lives revolved around household and familial duties. “People would laugh at me and make comments about my character seeing me step out of the house and work. But, that never deterred me,” says Anita.
She narrates how the menfolk in villages would not allow them to talk to the women in the family as the duo went from village to village to spread awareness on the importance of women being educated and earning a livelihood. “We would have to seek permission from the head of the family to get to the women, and the men would vehemently debunk our ideas saying they would never allow the women to remove their ghoonghat.”
Eventually, her perseverance paid off, and Anita was able to convince many women and enroll them in her organisation. In 2000, Amitabh Verma, a retired IAS officer whose parent cadre was Bihar and who has served as the Chairman of Inland Waterways Authority of India, helped Anita register Bhojpur Mahila Kala Kendra as a society so that they could avail government support. The organisation was also supported by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences and Development Commission of Handicrafts, Government of India, in the same year.
Although Anita has managed to bring a change in the lives of women, she says that it is difficult to get a space in the art fairs, as these women belong to the category of artisans. “The organisers are reluctant to allow them to showcase their work. It is much easier for sellers who sell these products to get space in the fairs.”
But nothing stops Anita from working towards her goals. With undeterred enthusiasm and unwavering determination, Anita continues to empower women and build equality at grassroot levels.
(Edited by Athira Nair)