Phula Bai was the first woman in the Bundelkhand region to demand that women be allowed to lease ponds for fish-farming. Photo: Saurabh Sharma
Phula Bai was the first woman in the Bundelkhand region to demand that women be allowed to lease ponds for fish-farming. Photo: Saurabh Sharma

Once very suppressed, women in a community in the impoverished Bundelkhand region of central India are now standing up for their rights and turning their lives around.

India’s second largest state Madhya Pradesh is in the Bundelkhand region. In the state’s Tikamgarh district, women in communities which depend on freshwater fish farming for their livelihoods had been trapped under a glass ceiling for a long time.

Even at the turn of the 21st century, government policies would not allow women to lease ponds to farm fish, even though the women did the same work as men in this labor-intensive business.

However, the women started a struggle for their rights in 2002 and in 2008 the state government changed its policy and allowed women’s cooperatives to lease ponds, among other amendments, triggering a change in their fortunes.

Now women’s cooperatives in Tikamgarh and the adjoining district of Chhattarpur have leased about two dozen ponds and can earn a few hundred thousand rupees every year.

This success eventually led the women to start contesting local elections – on platforms of compelling contractors to pay women the same as men, tackling alcoholism head-on and laying the groundwork for the education of the younger generation.

An empowered life

Phula Bai, 45, of Birora Khet village in Tikamgarh, was the first to demand women be granted leases on ponds for fish farming. Last month, she and the other women in her self-help group, Jai Maa Ambe Swayam Sahaayata Samooh, made US$1,267 by selling 800 kilos of produce from their ponds. The women split the profit equally, taking home $38 each.

Phula Bai has seven granddaughters who all go to school and she pays for her children’s school fees. Although she never went to school herself, she realizes the importance of an education.

“If you study well, you’ll become a doctor, officer. Or else catch fish from the pond all your life like us. Go to school every day, eat well, play, study sincerely and teach us too,” she tells her granddaughters as she prepares the household budget.

There are more than 40 women like Phula Bai in the village, contributing to their family’s income.

Proving their worth

The current status of the women is an outcome of their perseverance, which they exhibited when their fish pond movement started gaining momentum in 2002. The government’s fishery policy had not allowed women’s cooperatives to lease ponds, but they changed that.

Phula Bai led the women as they demanded the rule be scrapped. Raja Beti, 43, a member of the self-help group, recalled that in 2002, the women asked then district collector Ramanand Shukla to let women lease ponds. He asked them to prove they were capable of handling the tasks involved by themselves.

The women accepted the challenge and a demonstration was arranged. The women brought and lowered a nine-foot boat into the pond on their own. Then another boat. Like experts, they cast their nets and pulled in a good catch.

Convinced of their skills, the collector granted them the pond’s fishing rights. The news spread and inspired women in other villages to demand their rights over ponds, which they went on to secure. Ultimately, the Madhya Pradesh government’s new fisheries policy in 2008 paved the way for women’s cooperatives to lease ponds in a hassle-free manner.

Positive changes

Shriram Kevat, a fisherman, says the women have changed the financial position of their community. Not only do they make money, they save their husband’s money. Many of the men hardly bought money home, spending a huge chunk of their earnings on alcohol.

Sarju Bai, the president of the Jai Maa Ambe self-help group, said many of the men used to spend their earnings on alcohol and gambling. It was common for them to pass out on their way home and be targeted by thieves. “I don’t know how many times our children had to sleep with an empty stomach. At times, there wasn’t enough money to buy even salt,” she said.

OP Rawat, the convener for Vikalp, a non-profit organization associated with the fishing community for a long time, said the women battled alcoholism in their community. He said private contractors were upset after losing control of ponds to women’s cooperatives. They started giving free alcohol to the men, which would result in the men beating their wives, questioning their character and stopping them attending meetings and being involved in other activities.

Fierce and unstoppable

In the face of this hostility, the women fought back, destroying outlets selling alcohol in their villages. They took a stand against domestic violence too.

Blaming illiteracy for their plight and subjugation, they started giving an emphasis to education and monitoring teacher absenteeism in the village schools. Rawat said the end result of the women’s uprising was every child in her village now goes to school.

As the movement gained momentum, women in another village, Maria, started demanding the same pay as men for the same work. Although the contractors initially resisted, they ultimately gave in as the women refused to back down.

Soon the women started to push for positions in local government. Phula Bai said two women were elected to the panchayat, or village-governing body, in 2005. Now the villages of Tikamgarh and Chhattarpur districts have more than three dozen women on their elected bodies.

Neelkanth Mishra, the founder of non-government organization Jal Jeevika, which helped the fishing cooperatives learn new ways to grow and augment their income, said the women deserve all the credit for their dogged determination, which brought about a total transformation in their lives.

In the words of fisherman Kevat, the women and their proactive approach to business, education, alcoholism and other issues has resulted in a much happier and prosperous community.

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