“Desertion, harassment by in-laws and domestic violence are the main difficulties faced by women in the area. The biggest constraint in dealing with these issues is lack of sensitivity within the families and among the police.”
Three times President of Adisakthi Women’s Cooperative and currently the unanimously elected President of Mahasakthi, one would expect Maneelamma to be a firebrand of a lady. Not so. Unobtrusive, soft-spoken and calm, having undergone her own share of challenges in life, Maneelamma radiates empathy for the travails and hardship women face in this seemingly unforgiving, drought-prone land and a harsh, patriarchal, discriminating culture.
58 year old Maneelmma of Chandamuru village, CKPalli mandal, hails from the Mala community, one of the Scheduled Castes considered as “untouchables” in the area. She and her family are landless and their primary livelihood comes from wage-labour. In that sense, Maneelamma, like the thousands of women in the area, carries the burden of the 3-fold stigma of caste, poverty and gender. What makes her story noteworthy is that Maneelamma has been able to transcend these barriers and play a sensitized and sensitive leadership role.
To-date Maneelamma continues with wage-labour and executes alongside, her duties as leader of the women’s cooperative. Besides this she also plays an active role in bringing women together for the development of her own village.
Maneelamma’s journey with the Women’s Cooperative began 15 years back when Adisakthi Women’s Cooperative began working in her village. Widowed with five young children and several dependant siblings, she was facing a financial crisis she couldn’t see any way out of. The family was living on the edge of hunger, forcing her to take loans with annual interests ranging from 48% – 100%, a debt cycle that looked and felt like an exit-less vortex. She joined the savings group being promoted in her village. “The possibility of getting loans at manageable interest rates was very appealing”, she says. Having a personal experience of the importance of thrift and getting credit at low interest rates, she worked hard at getting women together. She was unanimously elected leader as the women felt that she had a very sympathetic way and was articulate. As a leader of the group, Maneelamma started coming for the leaders’ meetings where learnt much about the workings of the saving and credit programme. That was also the first time she heard about rights of women. Under her able leadership her group started becoming a model group. It was at this time that she was elected as a Director by the leaders’ forum. It was difficult for her considering that she had to eke out her meager livelihood and contribute energy and time to being a leader, an unpaid role at that. She was also very frustrated with her own illiteracy. But she took on the mantle and persevered and fulfilled her duties.
Maneelamma, along with many other women, participated in a series of training programs on women’s issues and empowerment, legal rights and laws concerning women, counseling, management, etc. She also went on several tours and met with many other groups and networks that did similar work. Slowly, she also began to be a trainer for local groups.
By this time, Adisakthi was federated along with two other cooperatives under the name Mahasakthi. Adisakthi was already doing a good amount of work on protecting the rights of women. Once Mahasakthi was formed this work got intensified and as president of Adisakthi, Maneelamma started joining the fact finding team in cases of atrocities on women. “Initially this was very difficult as the families concerned were hostile and often abusive”, she recalls. However she was steadfast and supported many women in difficult situations. “Even though I am happy that there is generally a reduction in these cases, at least in the working area of Adisakthi, the situation of women is still frustrating as the Cooperative is struggling with child marriages even now”, she says referring to a case of child marriage she was involved in during which the family concerned threatened to commit suicide. Much as she is proud that she could contribute to the rights of women, she feels that there is much more to be desired and done for the girl child vis-a-vis her safety, wellbeing nutrition and education.
In 2003 Maneelamma became President of Adisakthi and was re-elected thrice. In 2012, she completed nine years as Adisakthi President. When Mahasakthi got registered Maneelamma was unanimously elected as its President. She continues to do daily wage work while giving part of her time for the activities of Mahasakthi and continues to be involved in the development activities of her own village. For eg. she was instrumental in developing a village orchard in 45 acres of the village common lands. When the Government started the IKP programme in her village, she took a lead in organizing the women in her village as a group. She is still involved in monitoring the activities of this group. She also played an important role in taking forward correct implementation of NREGA in her village when this scheme got shut down due to malpractices.
Even today, Maneelamma takes responsibility for her immediate and also extended family. She has a debt of Rs.90000/- incurred to care for her brother who passed away recently. This debt is her current sorrow. Yet there are two factors that make Maneelamma proud. One is that she has become a good resource person for the Cooperatives and second one about the quality of the Cooperatives.
“Adisakthi and the other cooperatives under Mahaskthi have total financial integrity and transparency. This is really special about the Cooperatives besides being able to instill confidence in women of the area”, she says.