I was born in a nondescript village of Maharashtra state's Latur district. Typically, this is one of those Indian villages that have almost nothing that you call 'civic facility' such as motorable roads or electricity or good schools. My family was quite small and right after I completed my 10th grade, my father thought, the best thing to do now was marrying me off. And so, as I was just a teenager, I was married to Dayanand Birajdar of Belgaum which is not very far from my village Anandwadi. Like my father, my husband's family also had a very modest income. You could very well call us poor.
My husband was a social activist and we somehow managed to make ends meet. I was very young and unaware of reproductive health issues . So, I became a mother of two children right after my marriage.
A few years after the marriage and motherhood, along with my husband, I started taking an interest in village development. Together, we founded an NGO called Grameen Vikas Sanstha which means Village Development Organization. We were a simple-living couple with a very modest lifestyle, but we had dreams of bringing big changes in our community. Then, one day, a tragic road accident took my husband's life leaving me alone, with no one to seek support from and two children to take care of. It was 2004
Suddenly, life became very strange for me as I now had to live as a widow with two kids and so I started taking baby steps on a new journey of life. First, I started forming micro groups with women of my community. These were self-help groups where women could collectively take a decision on what matters to them and also have a money pool through small savings.
I wasn't very well educated and it became a big hurdle for me as I faced difficulties in understanding many issues and accessing many facilities that were available for women. But then I thought, so many women in my community didn't get any education at all. How much trouble they might be facing? I must pull myself together to join hands with all these women because if we all came together, we could overcome our weakness with our collective strength.
And so I started visiting villages outside of my own and meeting women there. I started telling them about the benefit of building small collectives, saving together and helping each other to come out of poverty. Slowly a new movement of economic empowerment started to take shape as women in one after another village joined hands to build new self-help groups.
The self-help groups not only were not about pooling money; they were groups where I shared my own knowledge of women's economic rights and facilities. In turn, the members it with other women in their community and decided to take the action they needed. For example, in our country, a Ration Card is a very important document. A ration card will help you access a number of food products at subsidized rate. It will help you get employment under government programs. But, when a man dies and his young wife is a young, poor, uneducated widow , who will tell her where to get that ration card? Who will help her get one? I decided to try and be that person.
So, I mobilized 500 single women in my community who joined our self-help group movement and asked them if they had a ration card and what other government programs they had access to. Starting from there, I helped them first get a ration card and then slowly access all the government economic programs that were meant for women in rural provinces. It sounds easy, but was a bed of thorns than roses as most women didn't even have a basic identity document to submit at a government office. So I had to go back and forth, applying for this document, that document and then move one slow step towards the goal of getting the economic rights. But by 2012, all 500 women had their documents in place.
There were also other fights that we fought: going out of homes by single women was something that almost never happened those days. Even now, if a woman goes to a government agency or any kind of offices, the first question they hear is "Tujhyābarōbara kōṇa ālā āhē?" (who has come with you?)" and "Tumacyā barōbara kōṇī nāhī kā?" (Isn't there any man accompanying you?}. In rural areas this is not just a casual sentence thrown at you - its almost challenging your abilities to function as a single woman. And when I stepped out of my home alone, I heard such sentences every single day which questioned my own abilities.
So I started discussing this with the women in my community: we lived alone, we had to make a living on our won. So why should we fear what others say? Why should we fear other people's doubts? We must take control of our lives. It wasn't one speech on one occasion , but a constant counselling that I did because women needed constant reminder that they were capable of following up and delivering on their own goals.
Today, when I look back at my journey. I see how far I have come and how far the women in my community have come. I see a long path we have walked together from helplessness to self-help and self-empowerment. We have also walked from being alone to being a collective.
Our number of 500 has swollen to 700 self-help groups with over 7000 women and growing every month. And this is not about numbers, but about women who are daring to change their own lives and their own worlds through economic empowerment which was previously a man's domain. But this was possible only because I had decided to overcome my own demons which were loneliness, low education, lack of resources and social stigma. I did this because I believe, a true leader is not the one who stands at the back and commands, but the one who goes right at the frontline and dares step before others.