“I received a WhatsApp message about the brutal gang rape of a Dalit Woman at 10 30 PM yesterday, and I have to visit the site tomorrow. The area is around 420 kilometres from my office, and I will have to use my personal finances to get a taxi to the site, and also figure out who will be taking care of my daughter during that time”— An individual working on the issue of caste-based sexual violence.
Individuals working on gender equality-related issues often do not receive the recognition that they deserve. Over the last five years, the Martha Farrell Award for Excellence in Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equality has been recognising the work of such individuals, who work tirelessly to take forward the cause of women’s rights and their safety.
Instituted to honour the memory of Dr. Martha Farrell—a renowned civil society leader who was killed in a terrorist attack in Afghanistan in 2015—the Martha Farrell Awards recognize individuals and organisations that promote gender equality, and practice feminism in everyday life – work that Dr. Farrell actively promoted throughout her career. In 2021, the Award received 120 nominations from all across the country in the categories of ‘Most Promising Individual’ and ‘Best Organization for Gender Equality’. In line with Dr. Farrell’s vision, the Award in the Individual category is uniquely positioned to recognise not just community-oriented work, but also a feminist praxis.
The top five nominees, for the 5th Edition of the Award, in 2021 displayed exemplary commitment toward the cause of women’s empowerment, and here, we write about how they are ‘going the extra mile’ despite personal, familial, and financial constraints.
Deepa Pawar is the founder of Anubhuti Charitable Trust, an organization that works with Denotified and Nomadic Tribes (NT-DNT) in Maharashtra. Anubhuti’s youth-led interventions include issues of physical and mental health and wellbeing, in intersection with social security and justice, gender empowerment, leadership training, sexual and reproductive health rights, and safe youth higher education and working spaces.
Deepa, who belongs to the Gadiya Lohar (Ghisadi) NT-DNT community, began working in a community mobile library at the young age of 14, to support her family, and continue her education. Since then, her involvement in the development sector, working with youth, women and children began. Deepa focuses primarily on empowering the principles of the Constitution of India through her work, using a strong intersectional feminist lens. To her, the annihilation of caste goes hand in hand with the annihilation of patriarchy.
Belonging to an orthodox community, Deepa has faced criticism as a working woman, and backlash for the gender-related issues she works on. Her determination to continue her work has never been impacted. In fact, she actively ingrains her caste- and gender- consciousness in every aspect of her life. She says, “I am perhaps the only woman in my community who didn’t take my husband’s name after marriage, and my daughter takes both mine and my partner’s last name.”
2. Suman Devathiya
Suman Devathiya is the State Coordinator for Dalit Women Fight and works with victims of caste-based sexual violence in Rajasthan. She has also started her own organization, ‘Agaaz Foundation’ to empower young Dalit girls to become leaders in their own communities. Suman has faced several challenges while undertaking her work, and as a Dalit woman herself, she is uniquely placed to understand the issues of her community.
Suman describes her journey from a small village in Rajasthan (Jhunjhunu) to moving to Jaipur, “We were from a very socio-economically backward section of the society. My father was an alcoholic, and my mother, who was an Anganwadi worker, was the primary provider for our family and prioritized the education of my siblings and I. I was able to work hard, and move to Jaipur.”
Suman speaks of several death threats she received during her work and describes one such incident, “In once incident where I provided support to a survivor of caste-based sexual violence, I received death threats, and they also said that they would kidnap my daughter. I said that even if they take my daughter away, I would never stop my work!” Suman has also noted that this work has taken a toll on her mental health and she was under psychiatric care for three years due to this; her physical health has also been affected, and she suffers from hypertension and diabetes at a relatively young age. Despite all of these factors, Suman continues her work in this challenging space.
3. Yousa Lachenpa
Yousa Lachenpa is the Member Secretary of the Sikkim State Social Welfare Board, and also holds an additional charge as a Member Secretary of the Sikkim State Women’s Commission. Yousa’s work in the field of women’s empowerment encompasses work through her government position, through skill-building, raising awareness and providing support to survivors of gender-based violence. Her unique initiatives include work in women’s prisons, and she has also drafted the ‘Widow Remarriage Act’ for the state— providing compensation for remarriage.
Yousa is well known among her peers, friends and the women she’s worked with in various capacities to go beyond the requirements of her job to help survivors. One such incident was when a survivor approached Yousa and told her that her husband used to burn her hair with cigarette butts, among other things. Yousa presented her with legal options, after which the survivor filed a complaint. The survivor’s husband had also taken many loans in her name, and Yousa intervened directly and helped her pay off her loans as well.
Even at the height of the pandemic, when she herself was affected by COVID, Yousa was actively involved in the rescue and rehabilitation of a young survivor of human trafficking, coordinating the process telephonically. Yousa’s commitment to the cause of gender justice has also been translated into her personal and professional life, where she practices non-hierarchical and approachable leadership in her workplace.
4.Dhirendra Pratap Singh
Dhirendra Pratap Singh, is the CEO of Milaan Foundation, and works with girls from underserved communities in Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka and Assam. He was a part of the team that designed the ‘Girl Icon’ project, which builds leadership skills for girls, to empower them to become leaders in their own communities. His commitment to gender justice has also been echoed by his mentor Shilpa Diwakar (Director, Phicus Social Solutions) who recalls, “When Dhirendra was travelling to another city, he found out that his security guard’s daughter had been sexually harassed. He turned the world upside down with contacts and got her both financial, mental, and legal support to fight for justice.”
Dhirendra’s passion and interest in working with women and girls began when he was young, and realised that his mother’s role in the household was starkly different from that of his father’s. A fellowship with India Fellow furthered his understanding of power and privilege, especially in the intersection with gender. His understanding furthered his resolve to integrate a gender-conscious approach into every aspect of his life.
Friends, colleagues, and family today, when they speak of Dhirendra, emphasise his commitment to that resolve, whether it is in his interactions in office, in the communities he serves through his organisation, or in his personal family life.
5. Babita Rani
Babita Rani is a paralegal and activist and uses the methods of collective social action to support women in the urban bastis of North East Delhi. She has established 5 active community-led women’s collectives to train women in writing and filing complaints and right to information applications, raising awareness on women’s rights and government entitlements through community meetings, and a creche for working women’s children, among other achievements.
A survivor of domestic violence, Babita has faced immense challenges while doing her work. ”I have faced community backlash for engaging in gender empowerment work, and threats from government officials while demanding accountability towards the rights of my community,” said Babita. Sitting in an urban slum community, where she resides, she also explains how she self-financed her travels to meet the women in various self-help groups that she started.
Despite financial and societal constraints, Babita is a champion of gender equality who also practices feminism in everyday life— for instance, her feminist values are now shared by her children, who also teach remedial education classes for young girls in their home.
The five gender champions are among thousands of others who are doing phenomenal work in the field of gender empowerment. What sets them apart is the integration of their values and principles in their everyday lives, in their very personhood. The Martha Farrell Award is committed to recognising this effort, and providing a platform to individuals, who like Dr. Farrell, dream of creating a safer, equitable and gender-just world for all. Nominations for the 6th Edition of the Martha Farrell Award, 2022 are now open— write to mfa@marthafarrellfoundation to request nomination forms!