India Interior

In collective spirit they stand

Swapna Majumdar | Updated on January 18, 2018 Published on July 29, 2016

Sobering effect: Nandini and (right) Meera joined hands with members of 40 self-help groups to force authorities to shut down liquor shops in Khajaraha Bujurg - Photo: Swapna Majumdar

Nandini at her husband's new kirana shop

How the Azadi Mahila of Jhansi fought a battle against alcohol

They don’t wear pink saris. Nor do they take the law into their hands. But the marginalised women of Khajaraha Bujurg in Jhansi district, in the Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh, are no less fiery than the famed Gulabi Gang based in the neighbouring district of Banda.

Women belonging to 40 self-help groups in Khajaraha Bujurg joined hands under the banner of the Azadi Mahila village organisation to keep their gram panchayat free of alcohol shops for the last four years.

This is no mean feat, considering women in these parts were rarely seen or heard outside their homes. It was only in 2008 that many of these women first stepped out to form SHGs with the help of the Rajiv Gandhi Mahila Vikas Pariyojana (RGMVP). As their confidence grew, so did the number of SHGs — from one to 40 within four years — each with 10-15 members.

In 2012, emboldened by the newfound awareness of their rights and their success in pulling their families out of extreme poverty, the groups decided to take their biggest problem — alcoholism — head on. “Alcoholism was a serious problem. During group discussions, we heard that the jewellery of some members was sold by their husbands to buy alcohol. Even on our way to the SHG meetings, we could see men drinking on the roadside. They would taunt us and it became a security risk as well. So we decided to put an end to it. This meant closing down the four alcohol shops in our gram panchayat,” said Meera, president of Devi Mata SHG.

Interestingly, the biggest supporters of this decision were the wives and mothers of the men who ran the liquor shops. According to Nandini, she had tried to persuade her husband to close down the shop but he didn’t agree. “I am an SHG member, and like the other women, I too wanted the shop to close, even if it meant going against my husband. I also got the support of my mother-in-law. She is also a member of my SHG,” said Nandini.

However, they knew it would be difficult for their SHG to do it alone. So a village organisation ( gram sangathan) meeting was called and the decision to close down the shops was endorsed by the over 400 women who attended. The men were approached and requested to down their shutters. When this didn’t work, a representative group of 40 women walked 12 km to the nearest police station to lodge a complaint and demanded that the shops be closed down. This was followed up with a public rally by the women collectives the next day.

“We also demonstrated in front of the police station. I participated along with my mother-in-law. Her support was very crucial, as I was raising my voice against my husband’s shop,” said Nandini

The women’s groups were very sure they didn’t want to emulate the Gulabi Gang, although they had often heard about their exploits in tackling alcoholism. “Thanks to the awareness training given to us, we have learnt how to demand our rights. We realised that if we resorted to violence, it would result in more violence. If we went to the police then it would be within the law,” said Meera, also the president of the village organisation.

Such was their fervour that the police were forced to arrive the following day and close down the shops.

The next few days were tension-filled with some women, including Meera, receiving threats. But the women had a plan ready. Having seen the power of collective action, a group of 50 women sat cheek by jowl in a tractor to meet the district magistrate. Although they had no prior appointment, they were able to meet him and get his assurance.

However, the women did not stop there. They realised that to ensure the gram panchayat remained free of liquor shops, they needed to reach out and rehabilitate the men who had been running them. The wives were given loans from their SHGs to enable their husbands to start afresh. “I received ₹5,000 and my husband used it to start a small shop. Today, it is our main source of livelihood. It has allowed us to send our two children to a private school. We are very happy that he does not have to open an alcohol shop ever again,” said Nandini.

The writer is a Delhi-based journalist

Published on July 29, 2016
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