How defending Rewa villages against dacoits empowered women

Over the years, villagers have opened businesses, many headed by women

August 15, 2020 05:07 pm | Updated 05:38 pm IST - Bhopal:

Soundarya Adivasi holding a gun in Rewa district.

Soundarya Adivasi holding a gun in Rewa district.

Years ago, when Soundarya Adivasi was handed a 12 bore gun for the first time, her arms, which had mostly heaved logs and carried toddlers since childhood, dropped with a quiver under its weight. But she held on, realising only women could guard the village in Rewa district against the terrorising dacoit ‘Dadua’.

Women, children and the old and infirm were left behind every year as Majhiyar’s men travelled miles looking for agricultural labour, except in the rainy season, often not returning for months. “ Mard toh pardes chale jaate the (men used to go to different areas). And ‘Dadua’ and his gang members used to barge into our houses, abduct and harass women and girls, and even steal cattle,” Ms. Adivasi, 45, told The Hindu over phone.

Livelihood options

But today, she steps out fearlessly beyond the village to work in others’ fields and sell timber in the market. Although women of three villagers successfully staved off several attempts by Shiv Kumar Patel, known as ‘Dadua’, to enter their homes for five years, their empowerment, which began after 12 women got guns for self defence, did not stop after his killing in 2007 by the police. In fact, it opened up livelihood options for residents and improved women’s participation in the workforce and the decision-making, as the enduring dread of dacoits petered out.

Over the years, villagers have opened businesses, many headed by women. Still, small landholdings impel families to migrate for work. “We can now accompany the men to other areas to earn better income which was not possible earlier. Families feared houses would be pillaged in their absence,” said Ms. Adivasi, whose family owns less than a bigha land.“Now there is unity among residents who trust one another with belongings,” she said.

What showcased the women’s courage and leadership for the first time was an incident in neighbouring Kakaredi village, days after they were given guns. As the gang, which operated in both Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, lurked at the village’s edges, a woman who saw their approach shouted to alert others who assembled clutching their guns. “We fired in the air, and they fled. That moment felt empowering. It felt women can make a difference,” recalled Ms. Adivasi.

Men stood behind women in protecting villages in their absence, said Shyamkali Saket of Majhiyar. Earlier, women kept their faces veiled in front of strangers and weren’t allowed to step outside if not for farming. But seeing the women sentinels confidently wield guns, hold mock drills, and patrol around the villages’ perimeter with alertness at night, startled the men. “But it inspired other women to step out, sell timber in markets miles away, where they secured a better price,” said Ms. Saket.

Practised on their own

During the Chief Minister’s visit to the district in 2004, women had requested for guns which were handed over to them under the National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM). A guns dealer initially gave lessons in handling and firing the guns, but eventually the women practised on their own — shooting at tree trunks, and fruits hanging from trees.

“Security of women was the primary focus at that point,” said Ajay Singh, District Programme Manager, NRLM. “We identified their requirements and what livelihood options are available nearby.”

Has years of peace rendered the guns unusable now? “We fire them for celebration during marriages and political functions,” said Ms. Adivasi.

Majhiyar sarpanch Saroj Singh, who recalls being fearful of being married in the village 40 years ago, believes that as long as women stay united no baagi (rebel) can touch them. “I encourage women to shoo away any miscreants with lathi s now,” she said.

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