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Last updateSat, 22 Jul 2017 6am

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Bimla Devi: Health messages and hymns

By Alka Arya

Bimla Devi, a young dalit woman from Nagal Teju village in Haryana, has managed to ensure safe motherhood and deliveries in her village. She has got the upper and lower castes drinking water from the same tap. She has prevented a child marriage. And she has spread awareness about gender equality and panchayati raj.

Every afternoon in Nagal Teju village in Rewari District in Haryana, a group of about 20 young women get together and sit and chant the name of god. No, they do not belong to any religious sect and nor are they part of a music troupe.

Instead, these women are brought together by a Dalit woman, Bimla Devi, ostensibly to take part in a kirtan (hymn-singing session). Her aim: To share information with them about reproductive and sexual health and laws that affect them. At the same time these women are also told about the importance of voting in elections, the significance of economic empowerment and gender equality.

Says 29-year-old Bimla who is helping this group of Dalit women under the Haryana state government scheme called Sanjivani: "Women in our villages have time for everything but for looking after their health. Moreover, ours is a very closed society where women don't talk openly about their health problems. But I saw women going to the temple on every Tuesday to pray and I thought of having a prayer meeting in my house every week."

Once the women became interested in the prayers, Bimla introduced the subject of their health. "Initially the women who came here thought that I was misusing the name of god but slowly they realised that they were benefiting from the issues that I was raising and discussing," says Bimla.

In the process, Bimla has managed to set aside many misconceptions. For instance, there was a tradition in the village that mothers should not breastfeed their babies for three days after they were born because they believed that breast milk was not 'healthy'. During these days women were not given proper food and fed only black tea so that they did not feel well enough to feed their babies. Bimla was one of the first 500 Dalit women in the village (in a total population of 1,300) to disregard this tradition when her second son was born. "When my first son was born, I did not breast feed him for three days. But when I was pregnant for the second time an auxiliary nurse midwife (ANM) convinced me to breastfeed my second son the day he was born," says Bimla.

Once she had done this, Bimla decided to spread the message further. "Now all new mothers in the Dalit community start feeding their children immediately after birth," she says. Women in the village have also started taking the help of ANMs for the delivery and postnatal care of new borns.

A cobbler by caste, Bimla has many other firsts to her credit. For starters, she dared to take on the upper-caste Thakurs in the village -- an act which won her the admiration of the entire village. Bimla protested against people of her caste not being allowed to drink water from the same tap as the Thakurs. Thanks to her efforts, today both the upper and lower-caste people in the village use the same tap for drinking water.

A few months ago, Bimla was also instrumental in stopping a child marriage in her village by persuading the parents that they were not doing the right thing. Taking her endeavours further, Bimla, who has studied till Class 8, has also come up with books on the subject of reproductive health which are passed on by her core group to other women so that the message of safe motherhood can be spread further.

For her efforts and initiatives, Bimla is paid Rs 480 (1US$=Rs 48) per month by the Haryana government. And though Bimla feels that what she is being paid is a pittance she still wants to continue creating awareness amongst the women of her community. So she takes on additional work like doing embroidery at home to supplement her income. Her husband, a daily wage labourer, also chips in.

According to Bimla, her husband has been a great support. She recalls an incident that proved to be a turning point in her life: "Five years ago a couple came to our village and went to the pre-school. The couple was keen on spreading awareness about Panchayati Raj (local self-government) amongst the women in the village and wanted to get in touch with two women who could help them achieve this. Someone in the village suggested that they meet my husband. Even though my husband spoke to a number of men in the village asking them to allow their wives to do this work, nobody agreed. So finally, he gave my name along with the name of Vidya, an elderly upper-caste woman."

A nervous Bimla went with her brother-in-law to the adjoining village where the meeting was being held. "I will never forget that meeting," says Bimla. "Even in a couple of hours I learnt so much."

After this meeting Bimla underwent training and soon after took over the task of mobilising women in her village. Successful in influencing even the men, Bimla has awakened the Dalit Panchayat members to their responsibilities and convinced them not to sign any papers without being fully aware of their contents.

Now Bimla has another mission in life - to remove the barriers that exist between the Thakurs and the Dalits in her village. And as a first step she wants more Rajput (upper-caste) women to join her group. "The reason they have not joined my group is simple - they think that they are from the upper-caste and so want to maintain their distance from us." As a first step, Bimla has joined hands with a local non-governmental organisation (NGO) where she accompanies peer educators to talk to upper-caste adolescent girls so that along with talking about health, she can also start sensitising them about the issue of caste.

If her past record is anything to go by, it won't be too long before Bimla scores a first in this field too.

Women's Feature Service