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Women achievers of India


There are number of Indian women who have surmounted their difficulties and problems. Government of India and other organisations have installed awards in recognition of such women who are known as Women Achievers of India. I am sharing with you their life sketches here which should inspire and motivate young ILites who are in despair with problems.

Government of India, at the instance of Shrimati Sumitra Mahajan, Minister of State of Women and Child Development, has decided to recognize and honour the services of such women who have made outstanding contributions in the life of the nation. This will encourage them further to carry on their work, and to motivate and inspire hundreds of such voluntary women workers throughout the country. Five National Awards, to be known as Stree Shakti Puraskars, were instituted in 1999, in the name of five illustrious daughters of India - Kannagi, Mata Jijabai, Devi Ahilya Bai Holkar, Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi and Rani Gaindiliu. Each award shall be presented annually and shall carry a cash prize of rupees one lakh and a citation in scroll. The awards shall be given every year for outstanding contributions made by five women.

Mrs. Chinnapillai
Continuing the life sketches of 'Women achievers of India, here is the life sketch of the great Mrs. Chinnapillai. It is matter of great pride for all Maduraiites and Tamils when the then Prime Minister of India Shri. Atal Bihari Vajpayee when he visited Madurai paid his compliments to Mrs. Chinnapillai.

Mrs. Chinnapillai was born in Pullisery village, Madurai District. She has been deeply involved in organising and working with co-agricultural labourers for undertaking various agricultural operations on a collective basis to maximise the benefits.

She was the founder of a number of Kalanjiams (savings and credit groups) of poor women and was instrumental in forming Vaigai Vattara Kalanjiam, Appantirupathy, which is the First Federation of Rural Women Savings and Credit Group in India. This has a membership of over 40,000 women. The linkages that she has established between the Kalanjiams and the banks and other financial institutions like NABARD, HUDCO etc. has resulted in promotion of income generation for hundreds of poor women to get them rid of the clutches of money-lenders.

She led many struggles to establish the rights and entitlements of poor women against landlords, moneylenders, politicians and officials. The most notable was the right for fishing over the village tank, which was controlled by the landlords.

Her selfless and untiring service for the poor women in the South has earned her Mata Jijabai Stree Shakti Puraskar for the year 1999.
Next in the list of 'Women achievers' is the life sketch of Brahmacharini Kamala Bai. Hers is a real saga of a lady surmounting all odds to succeed in life and make a mark.

Air Commodore Padmavati Bandopadhyaya,
After 32 years in the Air Force, is at 55, the first woman Air Commodore in the Air Force. And that is just one of the firsts in a long string of achievements to her credit.

Commissioned into the Air Force in 1968, Bandopadhyaya was the only woman in her batch of officers.

Graduating in 1967, she was the first woman to enter the field of aviation medicine. She was the first woman officer to have successfully completed the course offered by the Defence Services Staff College at Wellington.

She and her husband, Wing Commander S.N. Bandopadhyaya, were the first husband and wife team to be awarded the Vashist Seva Medal for their work during the 1971 Indo-Pak war:

She was the first Indian woman officer to have conducted research in the Arctic region. And she was the first woman to be made a fellow of the Aerospace Medical Society of India.

Coming from a conservative Tamilian family, educated in Tamil, when she joined the AFMC, Bandopadhyaya thought she had been paradropped into a whole new world.
Suddenly she was with people who ate with forks and knives, spoke in English and sang English songs. She could only eat using her fingers, spoke little Hindi or English, and knew no English songs. Today, Bandopadhyaya prattles in Bengali as well - a language she picked up after marrying a Bengali Air Force officer.
Trained in Carnatic classical vocal music ("like all south Indian children", she insists), Bandopadhyaya is fond of listening to music and likes mythology as well.

These days, her work as Commandant - entailing a whole gamut of administrative work - takes up most of her time. She does her yoga everyday and cooks elaborate meals - fish fries for the non-vegetarians and sambar for her vegetarian self - on weekends.


Generally men only sing celestial or bakthi in Siva temples called “Oduvars”.
And she belonged to a lower caste not supposed to do that. The lady from Trichy, Malakottai fought against poverty, the tradition that males and upper caste should only sing.

And she is the perfect example that women, if they have will and knowledge, perfection and perseverance can equal men to sing on Lord Siva.

After all Lord Siva gave his half to women. Sure God does not discriminate. Men only do all things to bad (sometimes good) to women.

There are lot of women all over the world who are skilled and shine.

Neerja Bhanot,
The the brave 23-year-old air hostess who, risking her own life, saved the lives of passengers in a hijacked PAN AM flight in September, 1986. She was seriously injured by the hijackers’ bullets while shielding three children. Neerja was awarded the Ashok Chakra posthumously.

An award has been named after her called the Neeraja Banot Award and it is given to women who have shown exemplary courage in their personal lives.
One of the Neerja Bhanot award winner for the year 2000 — Alice Garg from Jaipur — has been engaged in a constant battle against injustice. The life of Alice not only inspire but also underline the significance of service and sacrifice — the two qualities which describe this woman best.

Starting from scratch, Alice has been braving one odd after another to get justice for exploited women. She has courted fear with a vengeance and has gone ahead to accomplish her chosen missions. She know courage is resistance to fear, not absence of it. Today, she has many reasons to justify her existence, and each reason is more powerful than the other.

Watching Alice Garg talk is like watching a dormant volcano swell up with lava. She seems to hide a tempest behind her calm exterior. One cannot but help wonder how the frail 61-year-old woman could have waged a war against well-connected criminals. Alice is credited with exposing many infamous cases of sexual exploitation against women in Rajasthan, including the Bhanwari Devi gangrape case which hit the headlines a few years ago and the J.C. Bose case, which sends shivers down the spine.

Alice has also helped in the rehabilitation of more than 4,000 migrant labourers, who now dwell in the Jawahar Nagar Katchi Basti in Jaipur. Alice says: "In 1975, the government demolished the slums, thus uprooting thousands of people. We, at Balrashmi, commiserated with them. The government was not prepared for their rehabilitation. So every time the government demolished the slums, they came up again. I helped those people to secure water and electricity connections. That was the first time I invited the government’s wrath."
The story of Ashammafrom Andhra Pradesh, another Neeraja Banot winner, a socially-marginalized woman who has been fighting for her rightful place in society, too follows along the same line.

At 35 years of age, Ashamma has nothing to share with the world expect tears. She comes from Karni village in Mehbubnagar district of Andhra Pradesh, where women belonging to the lower caste are considered objects of entertainment. Ashamma was made to undergo the jogini ritual when she was seven years old. As per this custom, she was married off to the village deity. Recalls Ashamma, "Since the day of the initiation, I have not lived with dignity. I became available for all the men who inhabited Karni. They would ask me for sexual favours and I, as a jogini, was expected to please them. My trauma began even when I had not attained puberty."

At 11, Ashamma attained puberty. As soon as the news spread, men hounded her all the more. She was forced to sleep with countless people, some of whom were much older than her. Still in her teens, Ashamma delivered a girl child. "I bore the child from the man I loved, but he did not marry me. Later, I escaped from the village," she says. But all the time she was reminded that she was a jogini and should not act like a pativrata.

During those days the Andhra Pradesh Mahila Samatha Society was running sanghams in villages. These forums voiced the concerns of sexually exploited women. When Ashamma heard the views of its leaders, she was impressed. She swore to fight against the baseless custom of jogini.

In 1997, Ashamma became the head of the sangham which operated in Karni. As the leader of the forum, she discouraged the practice of jogini. Her mission revolved around thwarting the attempts of villagers to initiate young girls into this
evil practice. She still remembers how hard she had to fight in order to save a nine-year-old girl in her village from becoming a jogini. The police had refused to help her and no one in the village was prepared to cooperate with her. But Ashamma sat in protest until she succeeded in preventing the initiation ceremony.

The two courageous women -Alice Garg from Jaipur and Ashamma from Andhra
Pradesh were awarded for their services to society in Chandigarh on April 28. The award money comprised Rs 1.5 lakh each. The commitment of these women to their respective cause was evident from the fact that both of them donated a part of the huge sum to their respective societies. Ashamma kept Rs 50,000 for her child and donated the rest to her sangham. Alice donated the money to Rustamji Trust which is dedicated to the amelioration of the plight of the poor.

Divya Mathur

Born, brought-up and educated in Delhi, Divya Mathur worked as Medical Secretary for nearly 15 years at the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi, where she committed herself to help the blind. She is Executive Director of a charity in London, which helps the blind to be self-reliant. An MA in English, she has diplomas in Journalism from Delhi and Glasgow. She devised shorthand for Ophthalmology in 1972 to facilitate her work at the Dr Rajendra Prasad Centre for Ophthalmic Sciences.

Recently honoured with the NRI Literary Award (Aksharam), Divya has been the Arts Achiever of the Year Award-2003 (Decibel sponsored by the Arts Council of England) for outstanding contribution and innovation in the field of Arts. She was given the Experience Corps Certificate of Recognition & Merit to mark her contribution in the community. She was also invited to receive the Lifting Up the World with a Oneness-Heart Award (Honouring individuals of Inspiration and Dedication) by The Peace Meditation Mission of the United Nations. She has also won an Award for Outstanding Achievement in Poetry by the International Library of Poetry.

A nominated Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Divya aims at addressing the cultural aspirations of the Indian community and promoting Indo-British dialogue at the level of thoughts and shared experience. In 1992, she joined hands with the team chosen by Minister (Culture) and Director, Mr Gopal Gandhi, to establish The Nehru Centre in London, where she continues to enjoy working as its Senior Programme Officer. She has helped organise thousands of programmes in the last thirteen years. The magnitude of her organisational skills can be seen from the number of programmes she has helped organise - over six hundred programmes in the last three years only.

In January 2006 she was awarded the Sahitya Akademi award for her collection of essays on contemporary issues, The Algebra of Infinite Justice, but she declined to accept it
Zena Sorabjee
She is the Chairman of the Baha’i House of Worship. She is also the Chairman of the Lotus Charitable Trust and Lotus Hospitals Trust.

She has represented the Indian Baha’i community at the UN Millennium Conference for World Religious Leaders and the Baha’i International Community at various UN seminars.

Travelling throughout India, Zena has assisted in the establishment of primary schools, the education of girls, and the transfer of technology to rural India. For her social work, Zena has been named Best Social Worker by Nehru Bal Samiti.

Ruth Manorama
Social Activist

Ruth Manorama is India's most effective organiser of and advocate for Dalit women, belonging to the 'scheduled castes' sometimes also called 'untouchables'.

Ruth Manorama is a Dalit woman. Born in 1952 in Madras, her parents escaped the worst consequences of being Dalits by becoming Christians. In 1975 Manorama took a Master's degree in social work from the University of Madras and has trained in both the community organisation methods of Saul D’Alinsky and the conscientisation methods of Paolo Freire. In 2001 Manorama was granted an honorary doctorate "for the distinguished contribution made to church and society" by the Academy of Ecumenical Indian Theology and Church Administration.

Manorama has been consistently associated with a range of issues – the rights of slumdwellers, domestic workers, unorganised labour and Dalits, and the empowerment of marginalised women. She stresses the interconnectedness between these issues, and the common cause that marginalised people share
the world over.

Her work crosses the borders between grassroots movements, mass mobilisation, and international movements. Manorama's working life has been spent on organisation building, mobilisation of people and advocacy on behalf of Dalit women through a large number of organisations. She is:- General Secretary of Women's Voice, founded in 1985, to work with women in slums, struggling for land, shelter and survival rights of the urban poor.

- President of the National Alliance of Women, set up following the Fourth World Conference of Women in Beijing in 1995 to monitor government performance on its various commitments to women and lobby for change.

- Joint Secretary of the Christian Dalit Liberation Movement, formed in the 1980s to mobilise Christian Dalits for affirmative action.

- Secretary of the Karnataka State Slum Dwellers Federation.

-Secretary for organisation building of the National Centre for Labour, an apex organisation of unorganised labour in India.

-President of the National Federation of Dalit Women (NFDW), set up in 1995.

In addition, she has a number of regional and international roles (Asian Women's Human Rights Council, International Women's Rights Action Watch – Asia – Pacific, Sisters' Network). She has also been a member of the Karnataka State Planning Board, the State Commission for Women, the Task Force on Women's Empowerment of the Government of India and a number of other state and national bodies. Ruth Manorama was chosen to be included in "1,000 women for Nobel Peace Prize 2005".
Ashminder Kaur Dhadialla,
A Sikh lawyer, was born in Nairobi, Kenya on 17 November 1974. She left Kenya as a teenager and first studied science in Canada before rounding off her law degrees with a Masters at Oxford University in England. Ashminder participated in the 1995 World Debating Championships and was Secretary of the Oxford Univeristy Womens Blues Squash Team.

Following graduation from Oxford, Ashminder worked for leading international law firms and companies, including Clifford Chance LLP in London, however, her key interest remained in undertaking pro bono human rights work and in
preserving Sikh culture, history and theology.

Away from corporate finance legal work, Ashminder spends a minimum of ten hours a week on unpaid pro bono work which ranges from assisting in domestic violence disputes to working with international human rights groups on complex and politically sensitive cases of alledged genocide or crimes against humainty. Ashminder also takes a keen interest in legal issues affecting women in her native country, Kenya and the structure of the Kenyan legal system, and prepares restructuring proposals in this regard.

In 2002, to counter Sikh under-representation at leading Universities, Ashminder founded "The Sikh Scholarship Foundation", a charity that provides grants and scholarships to leading Universities, such as Oxford, for Sikhs. The aim is to extend this programme to other under-represented state-less nations with distinct cultures, such as the Bushmen of South Africa and the Aboriginals of Austraila by 2009. All Scholars undergo a parallel programme of study to learn about their own culture, history and theology and to ensure they are equiped and capable of competently addressing the various social and relevant issues facing their communities.
Piu Sarkar

If the eyes say it all, then Piu Sarkar's creations with their large almond-shaped eyes, speak volumes. Her canvases have lovely women with arresting features, quite absorbed in their own world. It is almost as thought they have no cares or worries. "That's quite right," says the self-taught artist, Piu. "I paint women who are enigmatic and sensual; women who have a mind of their own."

Piu herself seems like an extension of her canvases. She is a lovely person, well read and absolutely passionate about her work. The latter evolves around stree shakti, which is the liberation of women that were embodied in mythology and folklore. "The series is also a story of my journey as a woman. It is not a voice against the man's world but her existence and evolution from pages of epics to entertainment," she states.

One of her paintings was inspired by a scene from 'Pather Panchali', a Bengali classic. Charulata or Shakuntala are influenced by old Bengali classics of Bibhuti Bhushan Bandhopadhaye, Tagore and Kalidas.

"All the women that I paint deal with a similar undercurrent of pressure and need strength to sustain them. It is here that the shakti comes in," she explains.
Piu admits that images of women icons of Indian mythology have been her real inspiration as they reflect the social and political strategy of a woman's status from the past to the society in today's times. "The series of my creations have been influenced by eyes and motifs of Ajanta Frescoes, Pala Art of Bengal
, Mewar Miniatures and Mathura/ Gandhara Patterns, etc. I have depicted the flavour of Indian Culture and Classics in an individualistic language and presented it in a contemporary palette of Indian Pop Art," she adds.

The striking depiction of these women icons have already won Piu admiration from eminent artist Jogen Choudhury and actress Sushmita Sen. "I did not know that Sushmita had bought my paintings until much later. She then called me up to tell me that the image had 'strength' in its eyes," she says.

For the artist says it's going to be women power that will occupy her canvas for some time. After which she will see what else catches her fancy.

Piu Sarkar has been awarded the 'Woman achiever of Calcutta' recently.
Bhairavi Desai

Most New Yorkers probably don't know Desai, but they know her handiwork. In May 1998, the 27-year-old labor activist went head-to-head with the city's combative mayor, organizing one of the biggest 24-hour taxi strikes in New York history to protest city policing of the industry. A history and women's studies graduate from Rutgers, Desai burned with a passion to take up the fight of the cab drivers, some 60 percent of whom, like her, are immigrants from South Asia, many of them working up to 80 hours a week for as little as $18,000 a year without health benefits, or even any certainty that they will be paid.

Desai's family had emigrated from Gujarat to Harrison, N.J., when she was six years old. Her father, who had been a lawyer in India, had trouble finding work and resorted to running a grocery store, and some of Desai's earliest memories were of racist attacks by skinheads. "I remember being chased down the street," she says. "I remember the hostility, and that politicized me." After graduating from Rutgers, she joined New York's Taxi Workers Alliance, where she is now staff coordinator. "I wanted to organize around issues of labor and class," says Desai. "I wanted to organize the immigrants, and it was important for me to go beyond what the AFL-CIO was doing. It was important to focus on life issues and not just the labor."

Desai bridged the ethnic, religious and regional differences among South Asian cab drivers by emphasizing that everyone is subject to the same difficulties. "We speak more than 100 languages," she says, "and yet there is a common language of exploitation that we all know. Because of our common goals, we were able to organize a common front." Now she plans to organize a South Asian Labor Alliance linking workers in the U.S. with those on the subcontinent. "Because our countries are underdeveloped, people are forced to migrate to countries that are often very hostile to them," says Desai. "It is important for us to have solidarity with workers in the Third World. They are not the ones who are stealing the jobs."


Aruna Roy
Magsaysay award winner

Aruna Roy, born to Tamil parents and brought up in a totally secular tradition, is one of those who did. Six years (1968-1975) in the IAS were enough to convince her that reality lay elsewhere.

In her words: "Frankly speaking, I was not happy with bureaucratic functioning.... There are times when one knows that the decisions being taken by higher-ups are blatantly wrong, but nothing can be challenged."

Aruna left the IAS to join her husband Bunker Roy's Social Work and Research Centre in Tilonia in Rajasthan: "I had my schooling in grassroots work in Tilonia. Before that, I did not even know what a village was!" In 1990, she moved away from Tilonia to join the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), an organisation of poor farmers, both men and women.

The MKSS fought for fair wages to workers, and also became centrally involved in the campaign for the Right to Information (RTI). As Aruna describes it, the RTI campaign—later to blossom into a full-fledged movement—was born from an agitation for minimum wages by MKSS in the late '80s.

Sixty per cent of the members of MKSS are women. It is these women and men who provide the breadth of vision that characterises MKSS. For them, as for Aruna, the RTI is not just a campaign for the right to information. It is a campaign that links together all the natural rights of citizenship—to food, to wages, to work, to dignity, and to a life free of violence.

The presence of women is essential for, according to Aruna, women instinctively understand what it is to be marginalised, and, over time, men in the movement have begun to understand the importance of involving women.

In 2000, when Aruna Roy was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay award, she dedicated it to the 'ordinary' people—both women and men—she works with.
Perhaps the most fitting tribute to this intrepid and remarkable activist came from the women of Devdungri, where she has made her home, when her mother, herself a remarkable woman, passed away. The bier was carried by women of all castes, religions, backgrounds. Her pyre was lit—in an important deviation from the Hindu ceremony where only males have this privilege—by all the women in her family, giving Aruna, and her mother, a sense of peace.


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