Ahilya Mahila Mandal transforms the lives of over 1,500 Vanvasi and rural women in Pen near Mumbai
Housewives are regarded the best managers at home, but their potential and skills are hardly used for social cause. A group of housewives in Pen, a small town in Raigad district of Maharashtra, broke this tradition and set a precedent by transforming the lives of over 1,500 Vanvasi women. After finishing their family responsibilities they run girls hostel, old age home, blood storage centre, garment manufacturing centre, spice based products and papad making, Tiffin service, primary school, pathological lab, medical centre, providing nutritious meal to over 2,000 children, micro finance, train purohits and even prepare dancers. All these activities are conducted under the banner of Ahilya Mahila Mandal. The interesting fact about these activities is that they are all managed only by the housewives.
The management skills of housewives have wondered even the top management gurus. But their expertise is hardly used for social cause. Breaking this tradition, a group of housewives in Pen town, about 100 km from Mumbai in the heart of Sahyadri ranges has set an inspiring precedent by extending a helping hand to the local needy people through multifarious sewa activities. They conduct 15 major activities including an old age home, blood storage centre, a garment manufacturing centre, a spice based products and papad manufacturing unit, a Vanvasi girls hostel, a primary school, a catering service centre, a Sanskrit school, a pathological laboratory, free treatment and awareness to Vanvasi women and children, nutritious meal to 2,000 children every day. The number of beneficiaries of all these activities is more than 70,000.
“The housewives associated with us contribute in these activities as per their convenience, skills, interest and talent. We have work for everyone whether highly educated or illiterate. After finishing their household works they join us and devote their free time for the welfare of the needy people. Beginning in 1996, the initiative has so far involved thousands of women,” says Smt Vasanti Dev, the torch-bearer of the initiative.
When asked how the idea of starting the initiative clicked, Smt Shulbha Joshi, former president of the Mandal says, “While attending an awareness programme organised for women in 1996, the fourth centenary year of Ahilyabai Holker, we thought of starting this initiative focusing on improving the socio-economic conditions of rural and Vanvasi women in Pen Taluka.”
Since Pen is fast emerging as a higher education centre, these women started supplying home-made nutritious tiffin to the engineering students. The initiative later was named as Swad Bharati. Then many new avenues continued to be added as the need was realised. “Change is inevitable in the society. However being proactive in managing change is the most difficult part. The Mandal was started in 1996 with just 12 members and small projects like family counselling, medical camps and training to women. However, I always believed that we could do things on a larger scale. Today, we have 15 on-going projects including landmark projects,” adds Smt Vasanti Dev.
The women associated with the Mandal have tried to touch every problem of the society. The family counselling centre has saved many families from breakage. The counselling centre also provides valuable inputs to the Vanvasis by addressing their issues like migration and its effects. They also organise health camps in Vanvasi hamlets and readmit the school drop-outs in schools. “This enables us to identify patients afflicted by the kind of diseases they suffer from and act as a referral point for advanced treatment. The major afflictions identified are anemia, malnutrition, ENT, ophthalmic and till date 2,100 patients out of which 1,840 have been referred for advanced treatment,” says Smt Ashwini Gadgil, president of the Mandal.
For social cause, these women do not hesitate to fight against the administration. They started a primary school at Hetawane for the children of Hetawane Dam displaced people. The school was started in the premises provided by the Irrigation Department. But after about five years the authorities asked to close the school. But the firm commitment of these women forced the authorities to continue the school at the same location.
There are about 200 Vanvasi hamlets around Pen. One of the Vanvasi communities there is “Katkaris”. The women of the Mahila Mandal noticed that the level of education among the girls of this community there was close to zero. They analysed the causes of illiteracy and decided to starte a girls’ hostel in Pen. Thus came into being the Anandi Chhatrawas. The girls here are studying from 3rd to 12th standard. Similarly, started in 2003, the Indira Sanskrit Pathshala has trained over 300 purohits, who now practice and conduct various rituals. Some of these purohits are women, who perform traditional rituals on various occasions. Nearly, 40,000 students have been taught Ganpati Atharvashirsh Shloka.
The self-reliance activities by these women have impressed one and all. Through Swad Bharati they have set-up a common kitchen to provide midday meal to school children, old age home and also to others on social or religious functions. Under Swayamsiddha project, they collected sewing machines, tables and other required materials from various resources, and started stitching clothes. The women employed under this unit are from underprivileged class. In last 14 years, nearly 500 women have been trained under this initiative, out of which 60 women have started their own business.
The initiative by Ahilya Mahila Mandal, if imbibed by the housewives across the country, can change the picture of the entire nation. They have potential, skills and expertise. What is needed is just the determination to bring a change. Ahilya Mahila Mandal has shown the path.
(For more details about Ahilya Mahila Mandal one can visit www.ahilyamandal.org)