"But the women's flag should be held upright and fought fiercely. Let everyone see and gain inspiration, let the labourer sisters fight and win" – Neetu Singh sings to inspire the women in her village.
Neetu Singh, from Naugarh district in Uttar Pradesh's Chandauli, never saw her life taking the turn it did. It was within a year of graduating from a government college in Banaras (at the age of 20) that she got married. Even though belonging to a privileged background, or perhaps, because of it, there was one question that always bothered her – Why do the men in our society consider women less than themselves?
Every time Neetu would discuss politics and other topical/relevant issues with her father-in-law, their dialogue would settle at this impasse. In one of those conversations, he asked her, "If you have so many problems then why are you not doing anything to change it? What is stopping you from fighting for women's rights?"
It is then, that Neetu took the first step towards changing her life's story. She found a job in an NGO and started educating herself about women's issues and rights. As her community members got to know this, they started making up stories to defame her. She was mocked by the people around her. She was asked questions; "Do you feel pressured to do this because of financial issues? Are you doing this because you are unhappy in your marriage?" This response from the community got to her parents and they requested her to quit the job and stay home. To Neetu's surprise, it was her father-in-law who came forward and supported her in her journey.
This incident gave Neetu the answer that had eluded her earlier. She realised that to change narratives around gender and through that, the society, you need to engage everyone, including those who have structural power and privilege.
Neetu embarked on her journey with Gramya Sansthan. Under the guidance of Bindu Singh, the Secretary of Gramya Sansthan, Neetu led projects based on Sexual & Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR), Village Development Schemes and ran almost 60 campaigns and programs on schemes that benefit women's rights.
She is currently representing Zila Swasthya Samiti, Beti Padhao Beti Bachaao, AIDS Nivaran Samiti, Medical Termination of Pregnancy and Pre-Conception & Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques committees, and continues to be an avid advocate of women's rights and youth development. She has also been nominated by the Chief Development Officer of Naugarh for a government program committee. The CDO was so confident about the value she would add to the committee that he refused to sign the permission letters until Neetu was onboarded.
Neetu had not always received such support from government officials. She recalls the disrespect and insensitivity with which the government stakeholders use to treat her at the beginning of her career in the social sector (from the years 2000 through 2009). They would discourteously ask her to take care of her home instead of meddling in social affairs. But such incivility and non-cooperation did not deter her from her mission. She kept intervening and regularly visiting government offices for the enrolment of labourers in schemes. For Neetu, one of the most notable milestones in her journey is her liaison with the Health and Police department.
Last year, Neetu was also felicitated by the Governor of Uttar Pradesh, Ms. Anandibai Patel for her outstanding work in the area of women's rights. Neetu has also been engaged in projects and consultancies with organisations like PHIA, Oxfam, Sahayog, and Nutrition International, which have been doing commendable work at the national level.
Through the course of her 21-year-long career in the social sector, she has trained over 1,500 women on women's rights, SRHR, and Prevention & Response to Gender-Based Violence. Almost 70 per cent of the women she has worked with are living a better life now and 20 per cent have been engaged as Auxiliary Nurse Midwives (ANMs), Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA), and Anganwadi Workers (AWW) in the health department.
During COVID-19 she has trained 200 AWWs on behavior change communication and was also a part of the vigilance committee of Village Health and Nutrition Day (VHND).
Neetu was one of the most inspiring facilitators in the recently concluded Jabardast Jagrik Project, where she mapped her own learning, strategized projects with a youth-centric approach, and engaged young people in amplifying the impact. Jabardast Jagrik (an awakened, aware & active citizen, from Jagruk and Nagrik) is a collaborative initiative funded by UNFPA & REC Foundation and run by ComMutiny – The Youth Collective and Yeh Ek Soch Foundation in association with the UP Collective member organisations.
The project was run in four districts of Uttar Pradesh where young people co-created social action projects on issues like Girl Education, Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM), Gender-Based Violence, and Sexual & Reproductive Health & Rights. Neetu mentored more than 50 young people from Chandauli as they co-designed and led their social action projects with Gramya's support.
Neetu is also a certified MHM Trainer and in the next 3 months, she is planning to cover 50 schools and institutions to deliver sessions on MHM and advocate for setting up incinerators in them.
Sharing her journey that has been as challenging as it has been inspiring, she says, "I feel proud when I see the women empowering other women and encouraging them to lead a better life and take ownership of the decisions in their life."
"Now there is nothing that I cannot do."