Subhadra, hailing from a poor marginal Dalit (The formerly untouchable and oppressed outcastes of Hindu society who have been given special status in the Indian Consitution as Scheduled Castes) farmer family in Chhattisgarh, began work as an activist for a land rights movement, Ekta Parishad, based on Gandhian principles in 1989. This organisation organised Padyatras (walks) from one village to the other, to talk to villagers about their land rights, and to record the local situation (i.e. who has access on land and who has control and how the landless could apply for land from the State). The foot march was also used to create mass awareness that gram swaraj or village self rule, was possible so as to establish self-sufficiency and sustainability through communitarian participation.
Many women like Subhadra contributed to make Ekta Parishad a strong mass movement. They got women organised towards the struggle for land, to increase their confidence and to fight for a society free of patriarchy. Subhadra set up a whole new campaign for land rights among the Bhil Adivasis (indigenous people) in western Madhya Pradesh for Ekta Parishad. However, seeing little prospect of further advancement of the struggle for women’s own rights and a rollback of patriarchy, Subhadra left the Ekta Parishad to work on her own.
Setting out on her own
Subhadra, before starting work on her own, applied her learning from the land rights movement in her own life. She asked her brothers for a share in her father’s land as per the law and got her share transferred in her own name through a legal battle with her brothers. The process of acquiring the skills and the resources in both personal and political sphere has had its share of estranged relationships both in the personal and the organisational sphere. “Power within, power to and power over” is the basis for struggle and negotiation. The success of these struggles has led to an increase in her self worth.
Subhadra started working independently for women’s reproductive health and rights in 1995. This work was supported with a fellowship from the John D and Catherine T Macarthur foundation. This resource gave her an opportunity to work on gender rights. During this period she initiated a strong women’s movement against alcoholism and this led to her being arrested by the Police and she had to launch a hunger strike in prison. During this phase she also sat on a hunger strike with 17 Adivasi women for gender rights and against the sale of illegal liquor, which was the first such agitation in the country.
However, the opposition from the patriarchal vested interests in society and the Government convinced her that she needed to study to improve her understanding of society. She had only done her higher secondary school education. So she did her graduation in political science followed by post graduation and M. Phil in Social work and now she is pursuing a Phd also. All the time she continued to work among the Bhil Adivasi women first and then among the Dalit and Adivasi women in slums in Indore city through an organisation of Bhil Adivasi women named Kansari nu Vadavno which means the felicitation of the cereal sorghum which is the Goddess of productivity of the Bhils.
Patriarchal social structures have resulted in the marginalisation of women in the public health
system in India. Right from the time in the late nineteenth century when for the first time women’s
health problems were addressed, the concentration has been on the provision of maternal health
services like safe delivery practices to the neglect of their gynaecological problems. These arise from
the burden of child delivery and care, overwork, a lack of menstrual hygiene and a lack of sexual
rights. Thus, while ante-natal and post natal care have been provided to some extent, the problems of the
reproductive tract and sexuality have been neglected. Health policies have been silent about the
negative effects of patriarchy on the physical and mental health of women.
As a consequence of their secondary status, women have to bear more babies to ensure that there
are male progeny who will inherit the property and provide security in old age. Along with this there
is social control over the sexuality of women so that men can be assured that the children born to
their wives are truly theirs and so ensure the purity of their descent. Naturally all this affects the
overall health of women and especially their reproductive and sexual health. Since there is a taboo
on the discussion of these issues women have to suffer their troubles in silence and this leads to
mental problems. Thus there is a deafening culture of silence surrounding women’s reproductive
and sexual health problems.
Subhadra has mobilised the women in slums in cities and villages to become aware of their reproductive and sexual health and rights and seek solutions for their problems in a systematic manner.
Natural Resource Conservation
Later Subhadra also worked on natural resource conservation among the Bhil Adivasis through the organisation Dhas Gramin Vikas Kendra (Dhas Rural Development Centre). During this work she innovatively combined the resources of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and the traditional culture of community cooperation of the Bhil Adivasis which is called Dhas and from which the organisation has got its name.. Thousands of hectares of forests and land have been conserved and many streams and rivers have been made perennial as a result. Her biggest contribution has been in mobilising women in these conservation efforts which has had the added advantage of enabling them in their fight against patriarchy. The organisation was given the Times of India Social Impact Award in 2011 for its exemplary work in the sphere of securing Adivasi rights and natural resource conservation.
Her work on the reproductive health and rights of women convinced her that unless the women could eat better there was no way in which their health would improve. This led her to question the dominant paradigm of chemical artificial input agriculture that has devastated farming after initially boosting yields and incomes. She has developed a thorough critique of the dominant mode of agriculture. Agriculture she has argued is the contribution of women as it was they who found out that wild seeds of grasses could yield cereals and those of plants could yield pulses if cultivated systematically. However, with time this knowledge was appropriated by men and women were reduced to secondary roles. Even so in traditional agriculture the seeds and their storage and processing was in the hands of women. This control too was taken away from them once multinational companies began producing and selling hybrid seeds and mechanisation of agricultural processing gained momentum. Currently, she is working on reviving traditional agriculture with the indigenous seeds and reverting control back to women farmers. This too is an innovative approach to solving the farm crisis that has beset the country and is jeopardising not only agricultural production but also the quality of food intake and soil and water availability.
The government has a school system in place in Madhya Pradesh but it is woefully inappropriate. The syllabi and teaching methods of the education system are totally alien to the culture of the Bhils. There is insufficient staff in these schools, which are mostly multi-grade single teacher schools. The teachers prefer to stay in the towns and market villages and only visit the schools occasionally. Very few Bhil children get educated as a result of this mismatch. Those that do treat their own culture as something primitive and sub-human in accordance with the prevailing modernist assumptions and distance themselves from it and their own community. This has resulted in the vast majority of Bhils remaining unequipped to participate effectively in the modern economy into which state policies have been relentlessly pushing them. This lack of a modern education has also meant that the awareness of their rights and enabling laws has been low among the adivasis. The situation of women and girls is even worse than that of men and boys. Therefore, Subhadra works to provide alternative education to girls.