KELA DEVI’S EFFORTS TO UPLIFT WOMEN
BY MUFEED KHAN
Nuh is one of the most “backward” districts of Haryana where the majority of the population is Meo Muslim. Forty-two-year-old Kela Devi resides in village Raipur in Punhana block, Nuh. She is illiterate, but her lack of education has never constrained her passion for activism. Although Kela is not a part of any official position in her gram panchayat (village council), she has worked intensively for women’s empowerment on her own.
Kela Devi has completed her education until class five from Jurhedi village in Bharatpur district of Rajasthan. She came to Raipur after her marriage and now lives with her husband and five children. Her family belongs to the scheduled caste (historically disadvantaged). Kela Devi works as a laborer while her husband works as an expert mason. Together they are able to earn a monthly income of Rs. 4,000–5,000. Understanding the importance of education, Kela Devi is working hard to ensure that their children get a proper education and become independent. She wants her children to contribute to the development of their village and the country.
Creating her own identity
Kela Devi’s self-confidence and fearlessness has helped to create her identity in the village. Her work in the last decade has focused on the betterment of women, her fight against early marriage, and her advocacy for girl-child education. Kela does not practice purdah (veil) and is against all practices that inhibit women from pursuing their talents and chasing their dreams. She encourages her daughters to participate in sports events as she herself has won various sports competitions at the district level.
The village sarpanch (head), Iqbal, says that Kela is an amazing woman who does not require any assistance to do her work. In 2010, Kela Devi contested for the post of panch on the panchayat’s seats reserved for women, but she was not elected due to the caste dynamics and political divisions in the village. However this did not keep her away from working on women’s issues and other problems of the village. Her village, with a population of 3,500, has only one ration shop, which distributes rations once every six months. Kela raised her concern for increasing the frequency of distributions.
To stop girl-child marriages in the village, Kela talked to the village women and held a rally in the village along with other women. Women went door-to-door informing the community about how early marriages adversely affect the aspirations of youth and cause various other problems. Kela’s efforts are the reason Raipur village has witnessed a steady decline in the number of child marriages. She is determined to eliminate this social evil from its core.
Kela is working with the sarpanch of her village to solve problems at the village school. The school is facing a shortage in the number of teachers. They are trying to increase the level of education provided in Raipur village from class eight to class twelve. Kela keeps a keen eye on all the facilities in the village and works to resolve any concern or grievances related to those facilities. The village anganwadi (day care center) is one such example, which was not functioning well. Kela complained about the issue and got the anganwadi moved inside the school. This ensured that the anganwadi functioned, as the school principal and the teacher can now oversee the operations and be assured of the progress in the anganwadi.
Kela Devi says, “I wanted to contest for the post of the panch in the elections last year but, because of the new government regulations, I could not participate, as I did not fulfil the educational eligibility criterion laid down for the elections. Our village has a special tradition of building consensus on the candidate before the actual elections take place and, in 2017, the village decided on my name; but I could not contest the elections, as I did not have the passing certificate of class five.” Kela thus recommended her sister-in-law as a candidate for the panchayat and villagers honoured her suggestion.
She says, “I have worked passionately for village development, but the new ruling on education does not allow me to contest for panchayat elections. At one level I feel the government has nothing to do with my qualifications provided the work is done well.” She questions whether this legality applies only at the panchayat level or the rule follows at other levels also. Kela Devi insists that rules should be equal for everyone.
The generation that Kela belongs to has faced this hurdle in education. She feels that the education scenario for women in general in rural areas is very poor. She described an incident in her neighborhood where a girl was not allowed to go to school by her father after her mother passed away, and now the girl is not able to study after class ten. This means that whether it is due to helplessness or certain constraints, if a girl is not able to study, her entire life will be affected in different areas and ways. This restricts or sometimes even eliminates a girl’s role in many fields. Kela Devi continues to shine a light on these hurdles and issues.
Submitted By: Sarah Berry