When Prime Minister Narendra Modi kicked off a contest to identify the powerhouses of India’s womankind, it brought forth some life-affirming stories of struggle, resilience, and conquests of insurmountable odds. NITI Aayog, in collaboration with MyGov, and the United Nations in India, had organised the ‘Women Transforming India’ contest, which was flagged off on International Women’s Day earlier this year. Citizens were invited to apply and nominate inspiring success stories of women change-makers, in the form of essays. What the esteemed panel was looking for were women who have broken new ground, empowered entire communities, or challenged existing economical, social, cultural, health and environmental stereotypes and norms.
From nearly 1,000 entries, 25 entries were shortlisted and put to poll on the official government website, MyGov, from April 16 to May 22, 2016. The top entries were then presented for evaluation to an eminent five-member jury constituted by NITI Aayog, including the UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative in India, Yuri Afanasiev; ICICI Bank CEO and MD Chanda Kochhar, Founder and Chairman at Biocon Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, Vice Chairman at NITI Aayog Arvind Panagariya, NITI Aayog’s CEO Amitabh Kant, and Gaurav Dwivedi, CEO at MyGov. The jury has finally declared six winners and six runners-up, and these women will reinstate your faith in the power of an individual’s will. Here are the women of the hour:
A lionheart who battled multiple surgeries through her childhood until she was given “seven days to celebrate her last days of walking” when she was in her early thirties. Deepa Malik (45) utilised those days to create an accessible haven around her, and get a headstart on her physical training to power through her impending paralysis. The result: she is now a Paralympian battling it out in Rio as you read this, at the third Olympics she has competed at in her lifetime. She walks in with 58 State and national-level honours, 17 international awards and two shattered Asian world records for javelin, already. She has also been the recipient of an Arjuna award, and holds the Limca record for driving eight consecutive days across the high Himalayas at 18,000ft, braving physical limitations.
At the astounding age of 103, Kuwarbai realised that she had spent enough time without basic sanitation, and decided it was never too late to turn her life around and live out the remainder in a dignified manner. So, the resident of Kotabharri village Dhamtari district of Chhattisgarh sold off her goats for Rs 22,000 to raise money to construct a toilet near her house. Not stopping at that, she moved door-to-door educating her fellow villagers about the evils of open defecation, and urged them to follow suit. Around 450 households now owe their new-found access to health and hygiene to this humble champion.
Hailing from the H. Muddenahalli Tandya in Tiptur taluk in Karnataka, Lalithabai opened her eyes to the heath hazards of the traditional chulha, and vowed to cut loose the blindfold upon the eyes of the millions of women, who still use the archaic equipment to cook their daily meals. A trained patron of BAIF (Bharathi Agro Industries Federation), she came in contact with TIDE, which trained her in the construction of household stoves called Sarala stove, which is smokeless, fuel-efficient, and saves time in cooking. She deduced that she could build these stoves and sell them herself, and constructed more than 1,000 stoves in about three years, earning Rs 50,000, while setting the women in her community free from the smoky and sooty clutches of those sketchy devices. She even received the Woman Exemplar Award from the CII, in 2007.
The visionary woman behind the Ekala Mahila Manch that fights for the rights of widowed and divorced women from rural pockets, Naheed has united a hundred organisations from twelve districts of Uttar Pradesh to put a roof on the heads of the socially ostracised. She has been working as an agent of change in Lucknow for 15 years, and has successfully provided shelters to 119 families, made 500 people computer-literate, and imparted mobile repairing skills to 40 boys and 30 girls, paving the way to their careers.
A trailblazer from Himachal Pradesh, Nirmal Chandel was widowed at 23 and blamed for the unfortunate incident.She was confined to a corner of her house for years before she had her revolutionary awakening to reclaim her life. She escaped and broke free, and joined an NGO named SUTRA at Rs 560 a month, while she planned how to rebuild her life. When she came in contact with several other women in the same plight as her 23-year-old self, she formed Ekal Nari Shakti Sangathan (ENSS) in Himachal with 120 single women, and ended up leading a rebellion of 3,538 widows, divorcees and deserted women from the State in 2008, including some in seventies and eighties, walking for 45 km over three days with their luggage on head, storming the State headquarters in Shimla. Called a 'Gamechanger', this act played a crucial role in helping the State government include the interests of the three-lakh-strong widow community in their budget schemes like health insurance, social security pension, the ration cards etc.
Revathi Roy is a champion not only of women power, but also of the startup revolution in India. Way back in 2007, she founded the very first women-run taxi service — Forsche — with an all-women army of taxi chauffeurs, a win-win situation not only for the economic empowerment of the employees, but also the freedom and security of the customers. She trained more than 1,000 girls to take on the old-boys’ club, and since she started out has three new companies under her belt, amazing skill development and income generation of more than Rs 10,000 for multitudes of poor families.
The women are set to be felicitated in a grand ceremony in Delhi on September 9, as the world watches on in adulation the spirit of womanhood in India in all its glory.