AS A student of social work at the University of Mumbai, I always knew that I wanted to work in the social sector. But I never thought I’d become an activist till I faced the wrath of the state. Back in 1989, a Dalit family was burned alive in Dhule Tehsil by upper caste villagers. A female friend and I attended the demonstration against it in front of the collector’s office. There something happened which I never expected. The two of us were apprehended by the police and roughed up. There was not a single female police officer present at the scene. We were detained for two days and then produced before the magistrate. No one in court believed that we had been tortured. That got me thinking. If this could happen to us, who were from Mumbai, what must it be like for the people who lived here, under this constant threat? That’s when I understood that I needed to work in these regions.
That was my first close brush with the world of inequality and discrimination. Soon after this incident, I left college and started my career as a social worker. The initial days were the toughest. For the first time ever, I was living away from my family and friends. I had to leave my comfort zone for my work. I was afraid of living alone in the villages I worked in. I didn’t have a proper house, I lived in a hut. One night, a local labour contractor barged in. He was drunk, menacing and looking to pick a fight with me. At the time, I was working with the labourers of that village. He told me, “I am not used to seeing women talking in loud voices.” The whole incident left me shaken. For a while, I thought about leaving the field. I was young and therefore easily disillusioned. This was one incident when I felt threatened just because I was a woman. There have been other times too, when I encountered gender-biased antagonism from the authorities thinking that I, as a woman, would not pursue my cause if they made it hard for me. On the other hand, being a woman has helped me immensely in my work. People I worked with would open up to me due to my gender. They would believe me easily. Though the initial hardships were not easy to overcome, with time I felt myself growing stronger as a person and as a woman. The organisations I worked with also grew stronger as we successfully led a few movements.
AS SUCCESS came, it became harder and harder to live in the comforts of home and spend time with family. Now, I have more responsibilities as a social worker. I can’t quit this life of work. I have to make small compromises every day. It is not easy to fight these constant battles without the support of family and friends. But there are people who inspire me to carry on. I have a friend. She was brutally raped. Her family and we, her friends, completely broke down. However, after she dealt with the initial shock, she emerged a changed person, stronger than before. She told us that being raped did not mean her life was over; it was an accident that had happened to her. In a short while, she was back to her work, picking up from where she had left off. She and her strength always keep me going that extra mile.
As told to Soumik Mukherjee