Mita was married off by her parents when she was only fifteen. As in the case of many other forced marriages like hers, she was tortured both physically and mentally by her husband and was blamed by her parents and in-laws for being incapable of satisfying him. On top of that when she gave birth to a girl child, her husband deserted her and started living with another woman in a different village. Mita’s entire village showered her with insults and made her life miserable. Today however she leads an independent life and contributes to women empowerment projects in her village.
Mita is just one person among many who have been educated and helped by an organisation called Nishtha working in Bengal villages for the alleviation of the pitiful condition of women and girls. Statistics about women development and progress mainly collect their data from the urban scenario, where the gender gap is closing gradually. However, the rural scene is equally quite bleak, where an age old patriarchal system still goes on with their relentless sexualisation of women’s bodies and atrocities against women.
NISHTHA was founded almost 35 years ago by Ms. Preetila Das. In the year 1974, Ms. Das saw her village go through a social holocaust. That very year, four young housewives committed suicide, six newly wedded girls were thrown out of their homes by their in-laws, and many young girls were sold into sexual slavery. She realized that she must do something to change the desperate plight of women in her village and so she started a small women’s center. Primarily, the activities of the center were limited to running a dispensary, an adult education centre and a stitching training school. However, its more important function was as a gathering place that offered counselling session to anyone who wished to talk of her untold miseries. At the women’s center they could at least give voice to their innermost pain. Gradually more volunteers came forward to help with Nishtha. The younger leaders stressed a change in focus from social services to an approach aimed at social change and women taking control of their lives . NISHTHA has enlarged its scope over the past 35 years to encompass more than 250 villages and encourages female empowerment through women’s groups, raising awareness of social issues, education and ensuring livelihood security.
Nishtha aims at affecting change at the most fundamental level. Gender awareness and sensitization programs are organised for the children and teenagers. Moreover, many girls face oppression at home about which they are unable to speak in public but are comfortable with revealing to their immediate peers. Nishtha divided them into groups where they can round speaking about serious issues in their neighbourhoods. In 2012, they were able to facilitate 9 safe abortions and stopped at least 21 child marriages. In some cases, they were able to convince the parents, in others, they have drawn graffiti on walls to illustrate the dire consequences of this illegal act. They have also collected money from among their families to pay the admission fees of many students of downtrodden homes so that they can continue their education.
Nishtha recognises that widows lead a vulnerable life as social outcasts. So, with the support in the form of ration, clothes, medicine and even pocket money these old aged women are not seen as a burden to the family. Now, they lead a dignified life enjoying a cordial relationship with their relatives and neighbours. They are even provided with loans to start certain income generation activities in order to avail better living conditions. Therefore, with the support for improving economic condition along with the motivating family to strengthen the family bonds, the families will be gradually self – sustained.
Nishtha believes that one of the main tools in both awareness building on rights and empowerment is education, especially for the girl child. Various factors make Girls’ education up to the end of High School absolutely essential for their liberation and full development- they receive essential information and knowledge. They also get into the habit of collecting information through books/computer and get familiarised with a huge source of enjoyment as well as knowledge opens for them. They can spend a good amount of time each day with their peers and teachers and in turn, they will learn to mix with the world, outside the limits of their homes. They leave high school as physically, mentally, emotionally and intellectually mature women. During and after schooling they may also learn a marketable trade and earn a reasonably good living and may not be left in the lurch in case they are driven out from their husband’s house.
Another important contribution by Nishtha is the part it has played in helping the children of sex workers and stopping forceful women and girl trafficking in many places. They are day care centres and night shelters where thes socially ostracized children can change their hygiene habits, cleanliness and use of abusive language and try to return to the mainstream.
Of course, if we take in the big picture, there are still be many women and children suffering in many villages all over the country in various ways. However, like the man in the sea beach- snail story, at least Nishtha is making some difference in some lives.