-Pramod Kumar –
Kusum Lodhari (36) belongs to Kharwa fishermen community of Porbandar, Gujarat. About 10 years back she realised that the girls and young women in her community are undergoing multiple life threatening woes. The girls in this community are normally married before 16 years of age—mostly with the boys of around 30 years of age. A girl above the age of 17 is considered overage. The male members of the family go for fishing in the sea for long duration. Because of the huge age gap the husbands die early rendering many women as widows in young age.
No Marriage without HIV Negative Report
As per the local traditions, when the husband dies, the woman along with her children returns to her parents. Since they have no education or employment, their future remains bleak. In those days the HIV-AIDS infection among men and women of the community took alarming turn. In order to arrest the menace, Kusum mobilised about 300 women of the community and sensitised them to arrest it. She told them not to waste their time and energy in discussing the colours of sarees or bangles. They collectively contacted the local hospital and started taking the infected women to doctors. As permanent remedy, they persuaded the community heads to make it mandatory to show HIV negative report by both sides before marriage. Now any discussion about marriage in the community begins with showing the HIV negative report. One report has to be shown at the time of introduction of girl and boy. Then another report has to be shown during engagement. If the wedding is not solmenised within six months, one more report has to be shown before wedding ceremony. The rule, framed about 8 years back, has saved the lives of a large number of people in Kharwa community from the deadly infection. Not only this, Kusum also motivated women to save money and deposit in banks or post offices. In order to make them self-reliant, stitching training is imparted.
Kusum, who instrumented this change, is a Rashtra Sevika Samiti worker since 1996. The courage to take such bold steps and mobilising community women was developed in her by the Rashtra Sevika Samiti.
This is the face of Rashtra Sevika Samiti which is hardly discussed in any news channel or newspaper. There are thousands of workers in the Samiti who through out of the box initiatives are igniting change in their respective areas. Many of such unsung heroes assembled in New Delhi from November 11 to 13 during the Akhil Bharatiya Karyakarta Prerna Shivir. The Sevikas, during the Shivir, discussed how to expand the organisation and take up activities concerning the society.
Girls Hostel in Mizoram
Pushpa Chakma came from Mizoram. She completed her education while staying at Devi Ahilya Mandir Hostel of the Samiti in Nagpur. After finishing her education she started a similar hostel at Kamlanagar area under Lawngtlai District of Mizoram for the girls of her village. The spirit which motivated her to take this step was that she should do something for the girls of her village. Today, there are 14 girls in that hostel started about three years back. They come from far flung areas walking for 2-3 days. Kamlanagar is Chakma dominated and most schools in the area are up to 4th standard only. If any girl has to study further, she has to either live in any hostel or with the relatives. Staying with the relatives is not possible for all, and bearing the expenses of the hostel too is not possible for all. “In my village also the school is up to 4th standard. Since I got the opportunity to further study though the Samiti, I thought to start a hostel for the girls of my village so that they also get better education. There are girls of 10 villages in the hostel now,” she says.
Pushpa is not alone. There are more than 200 girls from north-east who studied in Samiti’s hostels and are now engaged in various constructive activity in north-eastern states. The boldness of these girls can be understood from the fact that when 17 villages in Assam were burnt by the miscreants and the media claimed it an internal conflict of the local Janjati communities, some of these girls along with the women of various Janjatis reached New Delhi and called on the President of India to aprise him of the fact that outside elements are involved in riots. The President gave them patient hearing for 1.5 hours. The UPA government, which was taking up the matter with different angle till then, had to change its stand.
Miraculous Transformation in Lama Community of Ladakh
The Lama community of Ladakh, till some time back, had a strange tradition of making even small children sannyasi. Any boy of minor age could become sannyasi. This disturbed the girl and boy ratio in the community, as many girls remained unmarried. Naturally, the destructive elements including the foreign tourists, started taking unfair advantage of it. They bought Lama girls and exploited them in different ways. When the Rashtra Sevika Samiti noticed it in 1999, it decided to take some corrective steps. After persuation the Lama community heads decided to first ensure education to all the boys and then leave up to the senior Lamas to decide who will become a sannyasi. This step proved to be very helpful in balancing the disturbed boy-girl ratio. “Since the Lama girls are fair in complexion the foreigners believe the children they would produce will also be fair. We started taking some girls to our hostel in Jalandhar, Punjab, to impart them education. The result of all the efforts is that the problem has been curbed to a great extent. However, much work is still to be done, a good beginning has been made. Today, 26 girls of Lama community study in our hostel at Jalandhar,” said Sushri Shreshtha, incharge of the Jalandhar hostel.
Plastic-Free Village in Nagpur
Smt Nirmala Shirkhedkar (65) lives in Nagpur. She came in contact of the Samiti in 2001 when she along with her husband went to Haflong (Assam) regarding Samiti hostels. “The aatmiyata that I realised among the Samiti workers then touched me so much that I decided to permanently join the Samiti. When we reached Haflong, the train dropped us three km back. Four Samiti full-timers reached there by crossing mountains by foot to receive us. While going to Assam I had thought of not going there again. But that aatmiyata made me go there 22 times in 15 years,” she recalls.
During the Akhil Bharatiya Sammelan organised by the Samiti in Nagpur to celebrate birth centenary year of Vandaniya Mausiji in 2005, Smt Shirkhedkar decided to practically respond to the call given by the then Pramukh Sanchalika Ushatai Chati to take up village development activities as a tribute to Mausiji Kelkar. Without wasting time Smt Shirkhedkar started this activity in her parental village Ajani, about 24 km from Nagpur, where she had not gone after passing away of her grandfather. She went there, collected some girls and started imparting training of hand embroidery by sitting under a tree. Gradually, a Samiti Shakha began there in December 2005. The girls who had initially joined the project were subsequently married and now their daughters also have joined the Shakhas at different places. The girls who once hesitated to move out of their houses now actively join various developmental activities. Encouraged over the outcome, she has now decided to impart organic farming training to village youth. As a first step she has started rearing four desi cows at her home and motivated other villagers to have at least one desi cow. “What satisfies me extremely is that those girls are now instrument of change for the entire village,” she says.
Another remarkable initative taken by Smt Shirkhedkar is to make her village plastic-free. She collects the blouse pieces that the village women normally receive on various occasions to prepare bags, which are distributed free of cost to the customers visiting shops with a request not to use any plastic bags in future. “So far more than 3,000 bags have been distributed. The bags are also stitched from old sarees and dupattas. The impact of this effort is that the women voluntarily offer unused blouse pieces for making bags. There is a tradition of gifting blouse pieces and coconuts to girls or women on auspicious occasions. Since all blouse pieces are not used at home, they are used for making bags. Now most women gift those bags only to their near and dear on auspicious occasions,” she says.
Samskar Kendras in Andamans
Smt Archana Harshe is Prant Karyavahika of the Samiti in Andaman & Nicobar Islands. Samiti work began there five years back. Presently, it has weekly Shakhas in Dakshini Andaman and Dakshini Madhya Andaman, while there is contact in Uttar Andaman. “Since the degradation in moral values is very high there, our main focus is on imparting samskars. We run five Samskar Kendras—two in Port Blair, one in Rangachang, one in Bombooflat and one in Rangat Bay. There are 8 weekly Shakhas,” she said.
The impact of other sewa activities by the Samiti is also inspiring. “The children of Agariya community in Gujarat, who are mostly involved in salt making, had very low rate of education. The women there were also mostly illiterate. We started a project there about 17 years back. The impact of those activities was witnessed during Bhuj earthquake. When we went there with relief material, those people told us to first give the material to those who lost everything. Such a touching change in mindset seems impossible in the areas where the people are in acute trouble. After the earthquake, the Samiti adopted a village, Mayapur, in Surendranagar District for rehabilitation, which was finished in time. The school there was up to 7th standard only. For further studies, the children had to go to other villages. The boys somehow managed, the most girls discontinued studies. As a remedy, the money that the village received as Rashtrapati Puraskar for Nirmal Gram, was used to purchase a vehicle to drop and receive those village girls to school. The first girl of that village is now studying in MBBS,” recalls Sushri Sandhya Tipre, Akhil Bharatiya Sewa Pramukh of the Samiti.
Changing the Mindset
There are many other activities whose impact is really moving. Apart from Yogasan Kendras, Ayurvedic, Homeopathic and Allopathic dispensaries, the Samiti workers in Gujarat administer special drop of ‘Suvarnparasan’ to the children below the age of 12 years on Pushya Nakshatra Day. It is made of honey, gold and some herbs and is very helpful in strengthening immunity and sharpening the intellect. It is being administered free of cost for 12 years. After Gujarat, it has now been started in Nagpur also. Apart from it, pregnant women are educated what to eat, what to read, what to think and what to watch during pregnancy so that the child has good samskars since birth. At some places, special classes are conducted for imparting digital education. “Since digital technology has become integral part of life, the women are imparted this training in Punjab, Gujarat and Maharashtra. There are classes for Rangoli making, stitching, embroidery also. Sincere efforts are made to give full exposer to their talent and make them self-reliant,” adds Sushri Tipre.
The Shivir, organised to commemorate 80 years of the Samiti, was inaugurated by RSS Sarsanghachalak Shri Mohan Bhagwat on November 11. He said the nation cannot regain the lost glory without active help of the matri shakti. He also stressed on strengthening the family system.
Jain Muni Shri Jayantji Maharaj applauded the role of RSS for betterment of the society and nation. He said sacrifice for greater good is the very basis of Indian philosophy. The nation should always be on top priority for all. Pramukh Karyavahika of the Samiti Sushri Annadanam Sita highlighted the Samiti's glorious journey of 80 years.
Speaking at the concluding ceremony Paralympic Silver Medalist Deepa Malik said: “I came here as an inspiration to the ‘Shivirarthis’, but seeing the galore here, I’m myself feel inspired.” Eminent scientist Dr V Shubha of NAL, Bengaluru, said we must be grateful to our elders and parents. Dr Shubha is credited with inventing the indigenous technology installed at different airports for better visibility.
Pramukh Sanchalika Sushri V Shantakka said the Samiti has put in the stepping stone to reach the youth so that they are guided towards the right path of thought and action. “It is imperative today to take the youth towards a positive and inclusive direction, to confront a well-planned conspiracy that is being worked out by provoking the youth,” she added. Earlier, Dr Uma Vaidya, Dr Mina Chandavarkar and Dr Jyotikiran Shukla spoke on different topics at a seminar. Governor of Goa Smt Mridula Sinha and Lok Sabha Speaker Smt Sumitra Mahajan also addressed.