It was a sultry June afternoon when I met Jamila bua at her house in Uttari Rampur. Her sister was preparing lunch for her pregnant daughter who was weeping silently in a corner. Raju, our team member, told me her husband beats her regularly and refuses to take responsibility for his family. While she requested Raju to counsel her husband, Jamila bua told me that he should be handed over to the police and never be allowed to get out of prison. She pleaded with Raju to help them end the abuse on the young pregnant woman. Raju promised to look into the matter. On our way out, the neighbours surrounded us. They had come to see Raju and Martinbhaiya to tell them about the issues they are facing and seek advice. At Chunni’s house, the discussion was about getting her daughter admitted in a school. Her daughter is a member of the Kishori Mandal at BVK (Balika Vikas Kendra). Chunni requested both Raju and Martin bhaiyato look into the matter. They both promised to take up the matter right away.
Meena di is a proud mother. Her daughter Najmin passed Class X with flying colours recently. I met her at the Forbesganj office one evening to gain deeper insights into her community and work. As a community insider, she stood up to end prostitution for herself and her daughters. She works tirelessly for the children and girls of the area, picking them from door-to-door and taking them to BVK in the mornings for her crèche. They sit with her under the thatched roof at BVK, learning rhymes, alphabets and numbers. She worries that if she stops this service, their elder siblings will have to stay home to take care of the young ones and would never get the opportunity to go to school or remedial classes. That evening we discussed the baby girls who are bought from hospitals; how the girls, influenced by television serials want to get out of prostitution and live with dignity; the beatings and abuse that follow after resisting and how girls are seen as blank cheques waiting to be cashed.
Another afternoon I met Fatima at BVK. A Kishori Mandal meeting was in progress where a group of girls sat in a circle talking with occasional bursts of laughter. Fatima stood in a corner with her little child clinging to her, navigating the girls’ conversation.
The discussion began with the Chief Minister’s visit to some state sponsored schemes for the girl child and somehow, after much chatter, ended up on discussing the relevance of sports in daily life. The humid afternoon seemed alive in the otherwise sleepy neighborhood. On the walk back, Fatima explained how the girls utilize this as a safe space to talk about a range of issues—from local to global. It ensured a space where the girls built up a strong sense of community, bonding, support and healthy competition amongst each other. I had always been curious to understand the relationship between predetermined structures and agency (that which can bring/affect change); the ways in which anything close to ‘change’ is dealt with in the grassroots. A few years into internships, fieldwork and development sector later, the mandate that appeals to me is not of a firefight but that of a systemic change that would impact many lives together. And translating this ‘change’ to the communities are the foot soldiers, these community workers. Even though each of them have faced threats, abuse, violence and have been ridiculed by their own community for turning against them, they continue to do their work with passion and dedication. What keeps their perspectives together after all this? What does it take to risk personal lives? Is it the fervor of youth or the mellowness of age? They tell me that it is the belief that people are the best agents of change. Meena di said that the chapter of struggle and courage is essential to the book of life. And that in the end, justice would prevail. Meena di and Fatima are crusaders and a ray of hope for others in Uttari Rampur area. Meena di’s daughter Najmin tells me that she would like not only to be an engineer one day but also be able to do what her mother does and work for her community. Raju and Martin are like Man Fridays, the women and girls seek advice on various matters and also joke with them. That they are trusted is easily noticeable. It is their tireless dedication and, sometimes, risk-prone work and the ability to carry on despite many odds that help us understand and connect with our work with much clarity and transparency. I dedicate this post to this league of extraordinary women and men in Forbesganj, Kolkata and Dharampura for their resilience, undying spirit and courage.