By Jamuna Madi – I remember that horrific night before Ganesh Puja in 2008–it was one of the longest nights of my life. The September Hindu festival celebrates the arrival of Ganesh to earth from Kailash Parvat with his mother, Goddess Parvati/Gauri. People all over mark the festival by placing at their homes or in public places, installations of Ganesh clay idols.

My younger brother was crying loudly when he called to inform us that the Maoists had kidnapped Baba–and that they may not spare my him. The Left-Wing Extremists could kill our father brutally. I could hear my mother’s wail–though she didn’t talk. I could not sleep that night–I cried so hard, even my friends couldn’t console me.

I should explain that the Naxalite–Maoist insurgency is an ongoing conflict in India between Maoist groups known as Naxalites or Naxals, and the Indian government. The conflict started after the 2004 formation of the CPI-Maoists rebel group, which comprises the People’s War Group and the Maoist Communist Center. The conflict has been a constant over nearly half of India’s 28 states and cost hundreds of lives since 2005–and clashes between the CPI-Maoists and the government troops continue.

The Most Horrific Experience Paved My Future

That night remains as my life’s most horrific experience. The extremists abducted my father because he was doing well in life and trying to bring about positive change for his community. This was not something the extremists favored since my father was a popular Sarpanch–decision-maker, elected by the village-level constitutional body of local self-government–known in India as Gram Sabha, or village government.

A mob ruthlessly assaulted my father and threw him into a pond. Had it not been the insistence of my family to spare him with a promise that he would quit public office, my father would not have survived that night.

The gene of social service runs strong in me–in-spite of my father’s horrific assault by a mob. In 2017, I followed in my father’s footsteps and became the Sarpanch of Bejangiwada village in the Kalimela block of Malkangiri district in Odisha. A state in eastern India, Odisha sits on the Bay of Bengal, known for its rich tribal cultures and ancient Hindu temples.

I was not about to give up my inclination to serve our society. I have always been drawn to helping people in times of need–even at a young age; I stood by my friends in school and college through thick and thin.

Of course, my father’s history disturbs me, but I promised myself after my father passed away due to natural causes, that I would bring a change to this scenario where innocent people lose their lives due to poverty, lack of awareness, and fear. I lost my father because he did not want to lead a life of insignificance after being forced out of public office–he lost the will to live.

But it didn’t deter me from achieving my dreams. My alma mater, Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences (KISS) taught me not to give up in tough times, but to become tougher and face the circumstances.  KISS is the world’s first and largest residential school for indigenous populations and provides free education and accommodation to nearly 60,000 indigenous children from 62 tribal groups in eastern India. The KISS School, College and University are all part of a commitment to empowering children from poverty-stricken communities by providing food, education and empowerment. KISS founder, social impact education revolutionary, Dr. Achyuta Samanta, has devoted his life to eradicating poverty while empowering women through education. His motto is: “Poverty creates illiteracy. Literacy eradicates poverty.” He was recently appointed a Member of Parliament in Upper House in Odisha, to extend and spread his mission of empowering the under-resourced.

I started attending KISS at sixth grade. I routinely heard Dr. Samanta teach this message: Always think what you were, what you are, and what will you be.  While I didn’t understand it much the, today, looking back, I understand KISS gave me an identity, a belief in myself to fight for the rights of all people, and not be bogged down by circumstances.

When women are empowered, their children and next generations can be most definitely empowered.

After earning my Bachelors in Psychology, at KISS, I returned to my village and happily contested as a Sarpanch. I knew I could win by a vast margin in a reserved panchayat seat for women. Across India’s rural villages, the panchayat are a Council of five officials in the local self-government system.

I am proud to have been elected as a Sarpanch and focus on two major issues: Girl-Child Empowerment and transition into peaceful living through sustainable employment. With my background in Psychology, I fully understand the psyche and socio-cultural milieu in my local community. I actively campaign against child marriage, which I believe is the root cause of high infant and child mortality rates, population increase, domestic violence and reduced self-esteem.

The latest UN reports show nearly 1.5 million underage girls marry each year in India. While there are economic reasons for families to marry off their children early, education and job opportunities can lead girls to become active providers for their families and contribute to the well-being of their communities. But first we must overcome the patriarchal barriers in our Indian society.

Initially, I faced a lot of setbacks. Even women in my village did not cooperate or support me. But now things are changing–slowly and gradually.  When I get reports of families planning to give their children away in marriage, I preemptively visit the families and provide counseling. I encourage parents to send their children, including daughters, to school. I don’t want women to be seen with a biased brush and try my best to enable other women to lead and live their lives with respect. Women find it easier to discuss with me how financial independence empowers them.

When women are empowered, their children and next generations can be most definitely empowered. Employment, stable source of income and awareness about government opportunities is a safety blanket against the Naxalites’ financial offerings to their recruits.

I try to emphasize on opportunities, but I know well that I can only bring incremental changes. A lot still remains to be done.

I strongly believe that reserving one-third of seats for women in the Panchayat level is a watershed movement in the history of women’s representation in India.  It has certainly paved the way for women to enter grassroots governance. The inconspicuous presence of women in the Parliament and different levels of representation didn’t allow women-centric issues to come to the foreground and to be dealt with efficiently. Many states have agreed to reserve 50 percent of seats for women in Panchayati Raj Institution (PRI)–rural local self-government. It is a very progressive step.

Despite such reservations, few women actually voice their own opinion. The patriarchal constructs are constant: but in some rural areas, women are elbowing past patriarchal structures to powerful effect and are bringing about real change. Women’s contribution to village leadership is instrumental to achieving economic progress, a healthy civil society, and good governance.

Economists Esther Duflo of MIT, and Abhijit Banerjee have deduced from their studies that women-led panchayat provided more public services. Balance of power can come with women’s representation, both at the grassroots and parliamentary levels. But we can only realize this when girls are educated. Social institutions like KISS that offer a holistic opportunity of education and empowerment make such dreams possible for all girls.

Lead photo credit: KISS

Editor’s Note, more on the work of KISS, specific to young women and girls: “Committed to elevating India’s overlooked, poverty-stricken indigenous population, reversing illiterate girls’ lives destined for child marriages, KISS maintains 60 percent female student ratio, prioritizing young women’s empowerment through the following:

  • Offers “Earn while you learn” program to allow young women to gain income-generating skills while supporting their families – and becoming social change agents in their respective communities.
  • Eliminates societal pressures of early marriage for young women by providing tuition free education K-12 and higher education.
  • Provides young women counseling and education on sexual and reproductive health and rights for a better understanding of their own bodies and healthy sexual and reproductive practices.
  • Addresses social and health issues like child marriage, infant mortality and maternal mortality.
  • Its Women-Entrepreneurship Cell encourages young women to initiate their enterprise and incubate their start-ups.
  • Empowers female students with undeterred access to equal opportunity without gender-based discrimination.
  • Provides designated safe spaces–providing female students security, and the stable comfort of room, board, and healthcare absolutely free of cost.

KISS Founder, Dr. Achyuta Samanta, credits his mother as having had an immense influence of his social impact work and commitment to empowering young women and girls. “Having grown up in abject poverty as a young boy, I was taught by my mother to give back to the society and to remain honest, never humiliate or steal and not to be afraid of anyone no matter who they are. My mother also advised me that in empowering women, you can change the fortune of an entire village and this set me on a mission to give back to the society and help free the world of hunger, illiteracy, poverty and superstition by empowering women as change agents.”