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Shanthi: Liberating Dalit women

by Ilang-Ilang D. Quijano
Forty six year-old Shanthi Gangadaran does not use much words to describe her days. But it is evident she is a very important and inspiring figure in the community, sought after by Dalit women who are among the most oppressed in Indian society.
 
travelling-journal-feature-shanthiShanthi is a coordinator of the Rural Women’s Liberation Movement, an organisation that has been mobilising rural women for several decades.  She lives in a village of Dalits in Tamil Nadu.
 
Dalits are considered as “untouchables” in the Indian caste system. They are among the poorest farmers, having no land. Most work as agricultural workers, depending mostly on low wages given by big landlords who control land and other natural resources. Many Dalits also work as sweepers and drainage and household cleaners. From childhood, Dalits are discriminated against, and usually only attain primary education. It is estimated that there are 260 million Dalits in South Asia.
 
As a Dalit, Shanthi also only reached ninth grade. But the lack of higher education and better economic opportunities did not deter her from taking on responsibilities traditionally not associated with women. As a rural woman leader, Shanthi organises Dalit women to get land and housing rights, to do collective farming without the use of pesticides, and to participate in local governance. She organises village meetings, trainings, demonstrations, land surveys, and food festivals. As a woman leader, she also assists victims and survivors of violence against women.
 
In a journal entry last June 9, Shanthi recalled how a 22-year old woman named Ambika sought her help after being beaten by a man that she lived with. Ambika was left by her husband for another woman and with her parents’ permission lived with another man. However, she became yet another victim of abuse. “This man doubted Ambika and beat her every day.  She said that she was not in a position to live with him anymore. I advised and counseled Ambika,” Shanthi wrote.       `
 
Shanthi is encouraged by how women are now engaging in collective organic farming, after having struggled for their rights to land. “Morning 8 o’clock I went to Malla Reddy Kandigai.  Andhra government has given 45 women land ‘Pattas’ in their own names.  Since these lands are at hilly regions, I suggested them to do collective agriculture. When I talked to the women there, the women said that they wanted to make their land more fertile. They also wanted to do natural agriculture using Pseudomonas. [A kind of bacteria that can be used to kill fungi that attacks plants -Ed.] Mainly they wanted to plant millet seeds,” she wrote last June 14.
 
In another journal entry, she told of how the Maharajapuram Rural Women Agricultural Development Movement was launched. The movement aims to fight for women’s land rights, and develop women’s interest in organic agriculture by bringing back the “glories” of traditional agriculture. “We insisted that the government should give land ‘Pattas’ (land rights) in the women’s name and that the women should come forward as a team to do organic agriculture. The women in this village welcomed this new idea and appreciated it,” Shanthi wrote happily.
 
Shanthi also helps farmers in their struggle against land grabbing. In Paranchi Pirka where there are more than 53 villages, a total of 5,300 acres were about to be looted by the government. “The government took these lands and laid the basement for the SIPCOT factory. But the people there stood against it and stopped it,” Shanthi said. Last June 5, she went to Mittapettai village and taught Dalit women to do collective farming, so as to reap the gains of their land struggle more effectively.
 
The next day, in the Palavoy Center, Shanthi talked to several farmers about various problems, such as land grabbing and heavy interests for loans. In India, hundreds of thousands of farmers have committed suicide by drinking pesticides, because of their inability to pay loans. These loans are linked to the high costs of inputs and usurious rates charged by loan sharks.
 
Shanthi shared a story of how in Muthur village, the wife of one farmer committed suicide because “she was not in a position to repay [her loans],” she said. The woman died in a second suicide attempt. Her first suicide attempt failed, and her relatives got a new loan to repay the old loans. However, when the farmer still couldn’t pay the loans, his wife decided to kill herself again. It was a tragic story, one that Shanthi encounters many times in her work as a leader.
 
In her journal, Shanthi also described an incident last April 25, when petrol bombs were thrown by unidentified men at 11 Dalit huts in Marakkanam village. Shanthi’s mother organisation, the Tamil Nadu Women’s Forum, is petitioning against the violence and harassment being committed against Dalits. Harassment of the Dalit families continue, with men forcibly collecting Rs.15,000 commission per family, from the Rs.50,000 that was given by the Tamil Nadu Government as compensation.
 
For the rest of the week, Shanthi also met with theological students, oversaw the cultivation of a 10-acre land, and talked to women vendors grappling with the increased prices of vegetables.
 
In her journal, Shanthi also posted photos of her daily activities, showing her in a leadership role and with her family, a woman liberated like how she would like all of her people to be.

* This feature story of Shanthi Gangadaran (India) is based on the journal entries of one of eight women who wrote in the pages of the Asian rural women’s travelling journal. The journal travelled in eight countries in Asia for six months, becoming a rich repository of insights, experiences, and timely demands of rural women regarding food and agriculture.

This story is part of a series to highlight rural women’s leadership and their critical roles in food security and agricultural development towards the occasion of the International Rural Women’s Day on October 15. The women writers will be recognised by their communities during the culmination. Our Stories, One Journey: Empowering Rural Women in Asia, a one-of-a kind travelling journal, is an initiative led by the Asian Rural Women’s Coalition (ARWC), Pesticide Action Network Asia and the Pacific (PAN AP), and Oxfam’s East Asia GROW Campaign.

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