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Chellammal – ‘I am a human being!’

I did not go to school as a little girl. I was, after all, an untouchable. I was expected to be a coolie worker like my parents. But I wanted to go to school anyway, until I found out what happened at school. The caste children sat on benches but the Dalits sat on the floor and were largely ignored by the teacher. Outside the caste children abused the Dalits.

On one occasion some Grihini people came to my village and suggested I attend Grihini. There were already a couple of girls in Poombari who said, ‘I am a Grihini’. I had no real idea of what Grihini meant. After all I was only eleven and I had never been to school.

Because I was too young for Grihini, I stayed in Inigo children’s home and attended primary school for 5 years. Then I joined Grihini.

In Grihini I learned how to speak my mind. I was given the confidence to express myself. I am a woman! I am a Dalit! I am a Grihini! Grihini opened my eyes! I was given new eyes! With my new eyes I could see how my people were abused by caste people.

I could see that most of my people were treated as dogs not humans. I could see how the caste landlords stole the lives of the Dalit coolies.

Now my eyes are open. I know I am a human being, not a dog.!

‘The struggle for clean water’

When Chellammal left Grihini she returned to a village with no clean water. There is an old village well for the Dalits, but it is polluted and surrounded by filth and garbage. The caste people refuse to allow Dalit women to use the caste well or caste taps.

In time Chellammal addressed the women in her local sangam on the water issue: Why should we drink water from a polluted well? Why should we walk miles to get clean water? Let us take action.

With the help of a Grihini staff member, the women prepared a petition for clean water and sent it to the local government authorities. The caste leaders laughed when they heard about the petition. You are just coolie workers, they said. You are just dogs. You have no power.

Stirred by the petition, village leaders organized a rally at which Chellammal spoke. She announced that the Dalits would not vote for those running for the local election if they did not promise to provide water pipes with clean water.

After the election, Chellammal’s sangam again sent in the petition and demanded the local leaders keep their promise. Eventually, after many petitions, water pipes were extended to the Dalit village. We celebrated, said Chellammal. We drank clean water. Water was the symbol of our dream that we could begin to change things.

Pollution beside a Dalit well

Pollution beside a Dalit well

Balwadis – For primary school drop-outs

The Grihini school is for young women from about 13 to 23. However, there are numerous young children in the surrounding remote villages who have never been to school or who have dropped out of Primary school. The Grihini extension program has set up balwadis or pre-school centres in the villages to support these children.

Each morning the Grihini teachers walk through the village and bring these young children to the balwadi. During the evening the teachers visit the families to encourage the children attend the government school or to attend the balwadi to prepare for school. An anti-schooling conditioning is part of the cultures of Dalits and Tribals, and children may be lost to this attitude by age seven unless it can be changed within the family.

The balwadi program includes same basic reading and writing, maths, social awareness, stories and games. Simple hygiene, such as hand and leg washing before eating, is also encouraged. The following story illustrates the change of attitude among some families:

Pachialachshmi (a Dalit girl of 3 years old) comes from a poor family where there are two other children: a brother aged 7 and a sister aged 12. The sister collects firewood and carries it on her head. The brother is employed grazing cows. Neither have been to school; the little money they earn goes to help the family survive. Pakialachshmi began attending the balwadi when she was sill 3.In time the parents agreed to send their daughter to school. She was the first person in that family, for generations, to receive a school education

Chellammal and her son

Chellammal and her son

Anandhi ‘There is no road to our village’

Until recently there were many remote villages in the mountains around Kodaikanal that had no access roads. Everything was carried along narrow mountain paths to the village. And there are still some villages without access roads.

Anandhi, a Grihini graduate, joined the struggle of the repatriates in Gundupatti in their struggle to get improvements for their villages. One village of repatriates was relocated there by the Tamil Nadu government after they had been released from being bonded labourers in the forests of the Kodai hills. The women’s movement, supported by Anandhi, pushed for a road to be made to these remote villages. For several years the government ignored the women. After 1988, they led a number of protests to the Revenue Divisional Office in Kodaikanal. During one such protest in 1992, Anandhi and some others were taken by the police and jailed for 15 days. The outcome of these protests was that eventually a road built to their village.

Throughout the remote villages of the Palni Hills, Grihini graduates like Anandhi are recognized as women with the confidence to speak up and support constructive change. Grihini women act as local change agents at the grass roots level.

The Remote Palni Hills

The Remote Palni Hills

Anandhi – A girl who started sangams

I am both a Dalit and a repatriated Tamil from Sri Lanka. As such I have two strikes against me as a woman in Tamil Nadu. I came back from Sri Lanka with my parents when I was 5 years old and joined Grihini in 1987. According to the staff, I was just another frail little girl!

Soon after I graduated left Grihini I and another 16 year old girl began to change things in our villages. I called together the older women of the village and urged them to meet in sangams with Jesuits from Grihini to find ways to improve their villages.

I initiated women’s sangams and small saving schemes in about 20 Dalit and Tribal villages in the nearby hills. In some villages I taught women to write their signatures so that they could participate in the savings scheme. I even taught them street theatre to expose the social ills of their villages.

In 1989 I was appointed a Grihini animator in the village of Mannavanur and was so well received a local baby was named after me. In 1990 I became a teacher in the Grihini program where I stayed until 2001. I taught nutrition, literacy and street theatre. My special gift was writing scripts for plays that exposed the social ills in our villages.

A Grihini Women’s Sangam

A Grihini Women’s Sangam

A Nurse’s Story – Amali
‘Local gods cannot cure TB’

I am a Dalit from Oothu, but unlike many other Dalits I had a good education and was able to become a registered nurse. For six years I worked as a nurse in the Grihini programs, being responsible for health education and nutrition. I still return to teach health education units.

Among Dalits and Tribals I face many obstacles to promoting good health. Many illnesses such as TB are associated with the work of evil spirits. Only when women are healed by medicine do they begin to doubt their superstitions and the role of their local priests in healing diseases. Local gods cannot cure TB or any other disease!

Many babies are likely to die of diseases associated with malnutrition. This is partly due to a constant diet of rice and ignorance about health. Our task is to encourage women to include healthy foods such as ragi. While ragi is called ‘poor man’s food’, it is a healthy mix of crushed millet sprouts.

It is crucial that the Grihini girls take seriously the threat of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. Part of their health education involves guidance in how to resist the expectations of landlords that the girls working in their fields are their rightful sexual property. Joining Grihini involves an important health check to determine the presence of any diseases and the level of malnutrition.

Amali giving one of the students an injection

Amali giving one of the students an injection

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