These women dare to be different

MADURAI, MARCH 17. From cleaning toilets to making footwear, these women have come a long way. They are torchbearers of a new generation, which has dared to break traditional barriers.

Vijayalakshmi and members of her self-help group are different from any other group. One cannot but marvel at these women, for they have proved that they are made of sterner stuff.

Started in 1983, the Madurai Non-formal Education Centre, a voluntary organisation, has been working for the welfare and social development of the downtrodden in urban slums and rural areas of Madurai district.

The MNEC has helped the women of Subramaniapuram Harijan Colony here to scale new heights in the socio-economic order.

The beam on the face of one of the women, Vijayalakshmi (39), reflects the simple pleasure of finding a purpose in life. Born in the scavenger community, she was once an introvert. "I needed an escort to even go to nearby places. I never mingled with people and felt uncomfortable even in the company of women. But I was born anew at the age of 35, ever since I involved myself in the SHG activities."

Now, she has become the `most sought-after' person, for she helps her group members solve problems. Undoubtedly, she is a symbol of what India's poor, downtrodden, scheduled caste women can achieve when provided an opportunity to blossom.

SHG, a log to cling on

She and her group members make slippers with loan from banks and the MNEC, to earn for a decent livelihood. There are six groups with 20 members each.

Another woman, Saraswathi, a diploma holder in cooperation, says, " I enjoy being a member of the self-help group." Yet another member, a 39-year-old Solaiammal, says, " I was sinking in a flood of inferiority complex. I've found the SHG a log to cling on and come up in life and help my children."

The story of these members also has another side to it. This relates to Rani and Muthalammal. They continue with their "unclean traditional profession" of toilet cleaning and rag picking, as it earns them good and quick money. These two say they do not have money to invest in footwear manufacture, after clearing loans they raised on usurious interest rate from moneylenders.

All successful women have a refrain. They face difficulties in marketing their products. They showcase their ware in markets, exhibitions and in MNEC meetings. They need more marketing avenues.

Valliammal, another member, says the Khadi Crafts was willing to sell their products but "we are not in a position to oblige because of its payment norms."

They not only work for the welfare of their families but also contribute their mite to the development of their colony. They have installed six water tanks, built bathrooms and laid cement roads.

D. Manoharan, Executive Director of the MNEC, said the Centre conducted 21-day vocational training in manufacturing slippers, dolls, washing powder, soft drinks, `computer sambrani' etc., coupled with an entrepreneurship development programme before the women ventured into the actual making of several products.

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