Helplessness to Self-empowerment - Winning My Own Battles to Empower Others

Posted October 31, 2019 from India

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. 





This story was submitted in response to Advancing Women's Economic Power in India.

Comments 16

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Anita Shrestha
Oct 31
Oct 31

Dear Sister
Good work, keep it continue day by day

Dawn Arteaga
Oct 31
Oct 31

Minakshi, thank you so much for sharing your story. It is wonderful to hear about your life and all you have overcome to get to where you are now. I love your spirit of finding strength and courage because you knew by joining arms with your sisters you would be stronger -- I share that with you. I'm grateful to get to join arms with you through World Pulse! Sending hugs across the distance, Dawn

Maya Iwata
Oct 31
Oct 31

Wow, wow, wow! Thank you for sharing your very inspiring story and how you built a self-help collective for women! You accomplished something amazing when you grew your groups from 500 women to more than 7000! So glad you shared your story on World Pulse and can inspire others to build collective strength and power.

On a related note, I deeply appreciate how you helped women get the documentation they need to get critical services like their ration cards in India. In the United States a number of people are also missing the government IDs that give them access to many things from being able to receive government services, to being able to enter a building or travel, to being able to show ID to vote. Organizations that help people obtain these documents see how people's lives can change dramatically for the better. It is the kind of thing that people tend to take for granted unless they don't have it. Thank you for your work.

Oct 31
Oct 31

Thank you for sharing. You have immeasurable strength and sound like a beacon for so many women.

Tarke Edith
Oct 31
Oct 31

Hello sister
You are a strong woman .
Being a widow ,a community developer .a single parent,
Someone who work alone fighting for women ration cards .
Thank you sister .l beleive that we widows have a special gift from God to do many things no matter our conditions.keep up dear your reward lies ahead .
When l lost my husband it was like the world had come to an end with me .but as l said when God apoint you he will equipt you.
What you are doing has encourage me most . So l will follow your footsteps
Thanks for sharing this powerfully story with us.
Have a great day sister.

Oct 31
Oct 31

Dear Minakshi Tai
thanks for sharing story...salute to your struggle and also your work. You are inspiration for single women's movement in Maharashtra and also for Self Help Group work. I am with you.

Hello, Minakshi,

You organized 7,000 women to become self-empowered. You are a champion! Thank you for inspiring us with your journey. I'm sorry you lost your husband. How strong you are to continue the work you both began. Great job and congratulations!

Nov 01
Nov 01

Minakshib, you are a very inspiring woman. Thank you for this story.

Nov 01
Nov 01

This is such an inspirational story. What a fantastic example of the importance of helping one another and forming support groups, especially when you are part of a group that society undervalues and supports less. This is a great reminder of the power of one person when she builds a community.

Oluwatoyin Olabisi
Nov 01
Nov 01

This is a demonstration of the impact of collective support.Women Economic Empowerment is key as it helps women build resilience against cultural and religious stereotypes.
Keep up the good work and please follow me back.

Nov 01
Nov 01

Dear Minakshi, powerful you are......I salute you for your courage and vision to have togetherness with the sisters for self-help and how you grow together despite the hardship and existing social norms. Your journey from mobilizing 500 to 7000 is a really rapid growth that no development organization achieves in this short span. Very well done my sister. I can see the happiness and confidence faces in the photo, congratulations.
You have just hit the nerve of the women's development through their economic development, who says you are not well educated. Your initiation for ration card, women's economic development and accessing government facilities for women are valid evidence that you are not less than any expert or a highly educated person. You are a born leader. Keep rising, shining and keep it up, my sister.
sending you love and moral support,

Dr Jackie
Nov 02
Nov 02

Dear Minakshib,

Thank you so much for sharing! You are indeed a power house! True leaders are those who can use what they have to change the lives of others and you have demonstrated this in every way. I hope your government one day recognizes you for your impact. Kudos to you and keep up the good fight for our women and girls!

Nov 02
Nov 02

Hello sister,
You are truly inspiring,! You are kind, resilient and selfless.
7000 and more benefit from your strength.

Nov 02
Nov 02

Dear Minaksi, thanks so much for sharing this your courageous and bold project with us. In fact you made my day.
Your story got me two lessons: 1. That with perseverance all is possible and 2. That our past does not define our future.

Sorry for the loss of your husband. I look forward to reading more stories from your activities. Hope you are doing very well and do have a great weekend.
Take care

Nov 06
Nov 06

Great courage dear keep it up.

Tamarack Verrall
Nov 06
Nov 06

Dear Minashib,
From finding your own inner strength to mobilizing 500 single women, to making sure each had a basic identity document, to over 7000 women with ways to some financial independence. What an inspiration you are to what changes are possible, and to what one woman who looked to her own strength to create this monumental movement can accomplish. Thank you for sending your story, it is a message of what can be possible when one woman trusts in her own abilities and her own capacity to create big change. May you all continue to flourish. What a great photo.