While most remain unperturbed by regular reports of young women facing the brunt of forced marriages in India, Mandadi Shravya Reddy from Telangana was haunted by one question, “What happens to the village women in broken marriages?” To find the answer, she embarked on her life-changing journey through the obscure villages of Telangana and discovered that the rural women were plagued by endless other issues as well. What started with her turning up unannounced and knocking on every door in a village, has culminated today into the birth of We And She Foundation – a non-profit organisation dedicated to bringing marginalised women into the light of financial independence.
How ‘she’ gave rise to ‘we’
For the past ten years, Shravya had been associated with many organisations working in the development sector. She has emerged as a dependable face for young girls and women across villages. Women in broken marriages shared their plight and pleaded her for help. A firm believer in women empowerment, Shravya was deeply moved when more than one women said that they were almost on the verge of suicide.
At the outset, Shravya conducted confidence building workshops and counselling sessions. Soon she realised that the best solution is to ensure their employment. Accordingly, she started organising skill-based training programmes like beauty parlour courses, agarbatti-making or handicrafts.
She noticed that unlike urban women, it is hugely challenging for rural women to get a foothold in the society after a broken marriage.
“I met this young girl who discovered that her husband is impotent within a few days of her marriage. Yet she was forced by her family to stay in that marriage and make peace with her destiny,” Shravya adds, “This was when I thought that if there can be rehabilitation centres for widows, why don’t I start a similar initiative for women in broken marriages?”
Today, We And She is gearing up for approaching the government authorities for better implementation and monitoring of the women welfare schemes in the villages. She is currently documenting her findings and plans to submit the details to the Prime Minister and the State’s Chief Minister by the end of October 2018.
“If even 10% of my proposals are realised, I will consider it a victory,” expresses Shravya in a conversation with The Logical Indian.
Journeying through the length and breadth of Telangana
Shravya’s native state Telangana is the youngest on the Indian political map. Despite the Telangana government introducing many welfare schemes for rural women, she was seeing that a lot of women were still in distress. After thorough research to identify the most backward villages, she set out on the “We For Her” tour, spanning 31 districts in 31 days, from July 1 to July 31, 2018. She self-financed the tour and did not inform anyone apart from her family.
Shravya explains, “You see when a village sarpanch is informed that an outsider is willing to talk to the villagers, they try to school the villagers to speak only the good things. I wished to discover the darker reality of the villages.”
Skipping lunches and sacrificing sleep, Shravya even went to the extent of covering six villages in a day, meeting young and old women in broken marriages, shunned by their families and surviving on the hope of a miracle. She also met with young girls and women from marginal communities. She realised that although government benefits are aplenty in pen and paper, most of those do not penetrate the lives of these women due to sheer negligence and discrepancy by the lower level administration.
“During a school visit, a little girl told me that they were not given eggs in meals as promised. Later I found that the in-charge for mid-day meals was selling the eggs in a local market.”
We And She Foundation has brought this to the notice of higher government officials requesting stricter vigilance.
It was no cakewalk to earn the trust of the villagers. Already doubtful about endless promises made by the political parties, the villagers were not ready to accept her. She took her time to convince them that she is neither from the ruling party nor the opposition; she is just here to listen to their stories and help them find solutions to their problems.
Changing lives – one woman at a time
Abandoned by her children, 75-year-old Sakkubai Avva was counting her days in acute poverty with no means of livelihood. Moved by her distress, Shravya handed 5000 rupees to her terming it as ‘old age pension’, along with the promise of sending her a stipend every month. Five months later, a gentleman, who learnt about Shravya’s work through a journal report, agreed to look after Sakkubai till her last breath.
In another village, there were a considerable number of young widows below the legal marriageable age, whose families refused to get them remarried or employed for fear of being ostracised. Shravya patiently sat their parents down and explained why they should not deprive the innocent girls of their chance at a beautiful future.
“In the end, the girls came running towards me, hugged me and cried. That was a moment of inexplicable joy,” an emotional Shravya recalls.
During her visit to a tribal school in Adilabad, Shravya mentored the young girls. Through an interactive session, she painted a picture of a brighter future than what they were accustomed to seeing. The students, wide-eyed with wonder and infused with new hope, promised her, “10 years later, you will find us on the pages of newspapers doing great things, all thanks to your help.”
With the Joginis and the Byagaras
Joginis or the temple prostitutes still prevailing in Telangana’s remote districts live amidst entrenched societal discrimination. Their children are harassed and deprived of the basic amenities of a normal childhood. Shravya has started arranging funds to open up alternate occupations for these women, like small grocery shops or Chaat Bundis.
For generations, the Byagara women are bound to the task of cremation or burying dead bodies, even the unclaimed ones. They are paid a meagre 100 rupees per body which is terribly insufficient to survive in 2018. Shravya is determined to approach the right authorities to ensure decent pay for them.
And miles to go
Motivated by Shravya’s efforts, more than 70 women in dysfunctional marriages are willing to relocate to Hyderabad to start a new life. We And She is planning to set up a skill development centre for them within a few months.
Talking to us about promoting handloom weavers, Shravya shares, “If a weaver is selling a saree for 5000 rupees to a wholesaler, the same saree is sold at no less than 15 to 20 thousand in glamorous Hyderabad showrooms. But the worker is not getting a single rupee of the profit.” So they are organising frequent exhibitions where these weavers can connect with urban buyers.
She is also highlighting the environmental benefits of jute and other eco-friendly materials through social media.
The Logical Indian team applauds the exceptional initiative by Mandadi Shravya Reddy and her ‘We And She’ Foundation and wishes them success. We also urge the authorities to look into the concerns raised by Shravya and her foundation.
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