Meet woman's rights activist and PulseWire member Subhadra Khaperde. A Dalit woman from the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, Subhadra empowers rural women to challenge oppressive societal norms. Together they have won many battles including securing forest and water rights and shutting down dozens of illegal liquor stores that feed alcohol abuse among their husbands.
World Pulse: Why women and why now?
Subhadra Khaperde: The feminist historian Gerda Lerner has shown in her book "Creation of Patriarchy," that women were the first to be subordinated and the last to realize that they were subordinated. It is women who have to fight the hardest, and they have to fight immediately as waiting will never get us justice.
WP: What does it mean to grow up as a Dalit woman in rural India?
Subhadra: Dalit women are doubly oppressed as they face social discrimination in society and also patriarchal oppression at home. I had to fight with my brothers for education and later for my property rights. Even within the social work organization that I joined there was discrimination against women and so I had to resign and start work on my own. Today I have to fight for my rights with my husband, men in my masters’ courses, and the state authorities.
Women are not considered as equals by men and are instead made to work and are subjected to physical and sexual chastisement as if they are slaves. Apart from the psychological stress, women also suffer from anemia and reproductive health problems as a consequence of this oppression. Thus mentally and physically most women lead a dreadful existence.
WP: What adversity did you face in completing your degree?
Subhadra: The university degree course was in a very difficult language and the assessment was also very strict. It took me seven years to pass it after failing once in some of the subjects. With the help of a tutor, the money to invest in the course and with sheer perseverance, I succeeded in the end. However, the average rural woman is poor and oppressed by men, so it is next to impossible for her to even think of pursuing higher education, let alone passing.
WP: What role have you played in securing land, forest, and water rights for the women of Madhya Pradesh?
Subhadra: I have organized women to fight for their rights. I found early on that even if there are laws and policies in favor of women, they will not be implemented unless women raise their voices and demand it. I have led many efforts in organizing women to improve our condition and have even undertaken hunger strikes and gone to jail with the women of Madhya Pradesh in protest of our injustices.
The Bhilala tribals of about 30 villages in Madhya Pradesh have fought together for the restoration of their rights to land. The women were at the forefront of this battle. We faced the forest department staff and went to jail. After a decade-long struggle, we managed to get the de facto rights to the forest and ensured that these rights will be given jointly in the names of both the husband and wife. For the first time - Bhilala women will have legal title to the land in their own name.
The same women have organized themselves into small groups and taken over the protection of the forests near their villages. Over a period of two decades these forests have been regenerated and they yield timber, fodder, and other fruits and nuts which all enhance their livelihoods. The women go around in small groups patrolling the forests to ensure that they are not cut down. They have also built soil and water conservation projects on their land to increase agricultural productivity, which further improves livelihood of their community.
The most important aspect of this movement was to get the women organized and ready to fight and work together. Once that happened, even the men had to go along with it because of the huge rewards that such communitarian action brought. There even are instances where the men have taken on the responsibility of domestic work so as to free the women to take part in rights actions, community afforestation and soil and water conservation work.
WP: What is the greatest lesson you have learned as an activist for women's rights?
Subhadra: One must never give up, even in the face of heavy odds. Fighting for gender justice is a thankless task given the huge opposition from men, but I will continue the fight. And the future is bright – because with every passing day, more and more women are fighting for their rights. Now in the local government system there is 50% reservation for women which opens up a new vista of empowerment.