Empowering women in a different way

Empowering women in a different way

With her master’s degree in international politics from a prestigious educational institution in the US, Madhavi Kuckreja, who loves to call herself a “rebel”, could easily have joined some reputable company with a hefty pay package. She instead chose to explore her own country and that too by living amid poor and deprived women in Chitrakoot, one of India’s most backward districts.

“I wanted to know about rural women and those who lived in extreme poverty and who were deprived and victims of all sorts of violence,” Madhavi says as she makes enquiries about the health of a woman acquaintance, who was not well.

Sitting amid various kinds of materials, including clothes, woollen garments and other handicraft items made by the craftsmen from across the country at her not too big office of her NGO “Sanatkada” in Lucknow, Madhavi looks like a contented woman and someone who has achieved what she has always desired in life.

“I spent 14 years in Chitrakoot….with poor and deprived women of Bundelkhand,” she told Deccan Herald. To serve women better and effectively, Madhavi set up “Vanangana”, an NGO with specific aim of empowering rural women. “It was essentially an organisation which was formed by rural women,” she explains.

The main objectives of  Vanangana were to deal with cases of domestic violence, dowry harassment, sexual harassment, maintenance, custody and child abuse among others. “We believe in women capacity building, developing leadership skills and enabling them to access information,” Madhavi says.

“Livelihood is not the answer to women’s problems…they should have a life free of violence…sexual assault…respect at home…women are considered second class citizens within their own families,” she lamented.

Vanangana was also involved in providing training, capacity building, documentation and other similar things. “Our efforts saw the percentage of women getting jobs under the MNREGS going up considerably in Chitrakoot,” she says.

“In fact, a woman-only group built a pond at Basila village in Chitrakoot…they also constructed a road at Nareni in the same district…there was a woman supervisor also there,” Madhavi points out.

After spending 14 years in Chitrakoot, Madhavi shifted to Lucknow leaving Vanangana in the hands of the rural women from the area. They have been doing a good job, she says.
In Lucknow, Madhavi now focuses on poor women, especially from the Muslim community, and has launched a series of programmes to empower them.  “We try to develop skills in them and leadership quality….computer skills, managing business, etc,” she says.
“We make them familiar with the existing government schemes for them….opening their bank accounts and operating them,” she says.

There was an all-women video unit also at Sanatkada. “Women, all of them Muslims, go to various social functions and make video films…they are also making documentaries,” Madhavi adds.

At Sanatkada, the craftsmen of the country find a space to market their produce. “Sanat” denotes craft while “kada” means home and it has been living those words quite literally. “At Sanatkada, organised groups of craftspeople from different states and various parts of Uttar Pradesh directly sell their products,” she says.

These groups had worked over the years to revive and restore the traditional crafts of their areas while providing a sustainable livelihood to the artisans, she said. They had woven traditional skills in contemporary designs to cater to the markets in the major cities and towns.

“We have been organising exhibitions across the country with a view to reaching out to more number of customers…in such a way we not only cater to urban buyers but also provide markets and livelihood to those making these products,” Madhavi said.

“It is essentially an effort to bring out hidden talent and spread the art across the country while ensuring that the artisans are not exploited and get the right price for their products,” she points out.

Hailing from an upper class, progressive and educated Punjabi family from Delhi, Madhavi grew up in Kolkata before making Lucknow her home.

A single mother by choice, Madhavi makes no bones about her extreme views on the age-old social system and yearns to break them. “I do not believe in the institution of marriage….I feel that a woman can have a successful life without marriage also,” she said.

Madhavi, who has a son from a “live in” partner, says that marriage puts lots of restrictions upon women. “Women can live happily and achieve success as well without being in a married relationship,” she remarks quite candidly.

Did she face any opposition from her parents? “Not exactly,” she answers. “Though they had some apprehensions in the beginning….but now they are happy to see me successful,” Madhavi says with a smile on her face.

Madhavi’s “adda” (a sitting place) at Sanatkada provides a platform for a variety of people ranging from Avadhi historians to food lovers. Every now and then she and her team of volunteers organise food festivals in which people from different sections of  society take part.

Though contented, Madhavi still wants to do more in the field of women empowerment. “There is so much to do,” she remarks.

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